Renewable Farming

Crop consultant Bob Streit: Why USDA crop condition surveys may prove over-optimistic

During the last two or three weeks the first signs and feel of fall have begun to invade. Nightfall comes earlier, the nights have cooled off and the crabgrass is in all its glory. The crops have begun to change color and in multiple cases are within a week or two of early harvest beginning. It can be an invigorating time. It can also be tiring, since the marathon for many of getting the crops in the bin or in the storage shed, any fall tillage done and fall fertilization complete is all in front of us.

The Farm Progress Show is now a week in the rear view mirror. My time writing last week’s column was limited by traveling to and prepping for a fall field days, so will spend time relating what I saw and learned. While men are generally more likely to enjoy the things that are comfortable and have become commonplace, seeing and learning what is new and hopefully exciting is fun to see and learn about.

This year at the FPS, everyone’s tight budget concerns kept the enthusiasm dampened the excitement muted. There was no use getting fired up about a new piece of machinery or building project if affording it is not in the cards. In reality and as proof we have heard that several of the building supply firms that normally generate sales and strong leads ended up with very few if any immediate customers to call on after the show was over.

 Crop Surveys

The general consensus among crop advisors and growers who actually walk their fields is that most of the bulls predicting record corn yields have not accounted for the damage done during an extremely dry June 1 thru mid July period and extremely hot June and July. Cumulative stress is never good for crop yields. This past growing season there were many areas in the Midwest where the survival of the crop thru the heat waves and mini-drought was in question.

We had the opportunity to visit with a USDA person and ask questions about how the USDA and NASS derive their crop forecasts where crop conditions and bushel forecasts are released on a weekly basis and tell how great the crops are in spite of unfavorable weather or damaging diseases.

The answer was that reality and actual field inspections play second fiddle to crop modeling. If the soybean crop had an 82% good to excellent rating in early July, there was not going to be any adjustment made just because sudden death had become a major widespread problem. Neither would the models adjust if two to three inches of tip back was being seen on the early to mid-May planted corn. Hearing the actual process being used makes today’s political polls sound truthful and accurate.

So there will be some very good and very high corn yields where planting was done in the right window, the fertility programs were adequate and complementary to crop needs, diseases were controlled and weather conditions were moderated. My guess is that a majority of the corn growers will be surprised at how well the fields will yield, but will be asking where the extra 15 or 20 bushels they managed for disappeared to.

Soybean yields are always more of a question mark, and this year will be the same. The branching seen on many of the newer varieties or series is often much more pronounced than ten years ago. With favorable early September conditions, that can convert rainfall and sunshine into added bushels. Meeting nutrient needs during pod fill and managing leaf greenness are important to final yields.

There is likely to be some harvesting work going on in early planted, early RM hybrids in the next ten days. There may be scattered reports of good yields. But the better yields will be coming from fields and hybrids that stayed greener longer and were able to maintain their normal 55 to 60 days of grain fill.

Farm Progress Show Innovations and Ideas

Here are different things I saw and learned at the show: IH did display an autonomous tractor at the show. It had no cab or place for the operator, but with our experience with computers that keep screwing up or getting hacked, do we trust electronics to back up to machinery or adjust to less than perfect weather or soil conditions? Would I be the one willing to stand behind a large autonomous tractor backing up to hook up to a piece of machinery? JD did have such drone combines in action in central Iowa a few years ago and they did function as planned. However, perceived ethical and functional issues kept them from commercialization.

Deere showed off several new items. One of them was a carbon fiber, light weight, quick patching spray boom. They are likely due out shortly on 4000 series and maybe Hagie sprayers and could make wider booms more common since lighter weight booms would become more possible. Other products due out are their pulse width booms that have timed controlled nozzles that turn on and off 30 to 60 times per second to control drift. Several other companies have had these in the field in recent seasons and report good results.

Several sprayer manufacturers will be adding features and equipment that will add auto-tracking where no AB lines were first laid out. Hagie was also featuring paddle type row sensors for their sprayers that fit on the rims acting like cat whiskers and kept the machine right on the rows in corn up to four feet tall on 30″ rows. Could they eventually steer thru much taller corn, which is tough to do?      

Navigation aids are also another area of development for several companies. We see the European machinery company placing optic controls on some of their tillage and cultivation equipment and being successful with it. We will see some of the same technology or using lasers here, as it can help with the tedious task of staying right on the rows or swaths. One would not have to worry as much about getting drowsy or off the row or sending an inexperienced person out to complete a field operation with such guidance tools. Strip till bars and row based fertilizer application equipment are other potential use areas.

The Precision Planting Company had good working displays. They had their down pressure equipment, high speed planting and multiple seed row units on display. They seem smart enough to recognized that capacity, efficiency and minimizing cost are all on farmers minds. Thus they can help retrofit any planter with new ‘add ons’ to boost seed depth accuracy and planter speed if those are desired to planters that have lots of life left.

Data input, data management, correlating all of that with climate predictions and marketing were the theme at several booths. This is an area where there are a ton of questions and everyone seems to lack the time to apply and maximize their abilities. Sitting down to sort thru data to generate the conclusions to use for guidance in future years is a large arena. How should we do it, who owns the data, and how does it find value are all nebulous questions for both users and suppliers. Hopefully some of the displayers will have the wisdom and qualifications to team with growers to develop the best uses for this current jumble.

There were several drone companies displaying their latest models and giving guidance on how they and their capabilities can best be utilized. The prices for many of the models have declined while their features and proposed uses have increased. Helping to scout fields and identifying early problems is what most growers and crop advisors are looking for if they decide to purchase one. $1,000 used to be the low price for a serviceable drone. That has now dropped to $600 or $700 and goes up as camera quality or specialty features are added. Early disease or insect infestation diagnoses are possible as thermal imaging equipment gets developed and added.

Weed issues, particularly identifying new ones and controlling them, was a big topic at several booths. This included the new Dicamba and 2,4-D varieties where their use and the application of the new chemistries was discussed. Current drift and misapplication problems seen in the Delta and Boot heel were mentioned, though local problems were not brought up. Everyone seemed to have their opinions and thoughts on the issue, as they recognize all the waterhemp now poking above the bean canopies is just a harbinger of problems with weeds in future seasons. In past seasons there were always new products that offered improved control. That is no longer the case, as concentrated efforts and multiple applications of overlapping residual products will be the course to follow. 

One item I wanted to mention is that my wife and I had help in constructing a web page telling about our Ag business. Included is a human health page where we display different solutions to the multitude of problems that many readers and their relatives/family members are enduring and have questions. Interacting with environmental and functional medical care professionals has given us insight that we have not had before and we believe we can help people by sharing that information.        

By Bob Streit, crop consultant

September 12, 2016 (515) 432-0907