Prairie Farmer Logo

Agronomists and farmers offer advice to get through 2019’s tough growing season.

June 21, 2019

8 Min Read
emerging corn
SUN MAKES SUGAR: “We need some heat,” says farmer Jeff Brooks, Prophetstown, Ill. “If we don’t get any more sunshine, we’ll be in a world of hurt — and we may be collecting crop insurance anyway.” Holly Spangler

As an agronomist who consults with farmers all over the Upper Midwest, Karen Corrigan has long joked that she prefers the years where she gets to be an agronomist — and not a grief counselor. 2019 won’t be one of those years.

“I get a lot of calls from farmers needing emotional support, and a lot don’t realize it’s not just them,” Corrigan says. “But everyone’s in the same boat.”

Agronomically, no farmer thought they were doing the right thing as they worked too-wet fields and mudded in seed this spring — from northern to southern Illinois. Those that took prevented planting on a percentage of their acres didn’t want to do that either.

“Nobody’s going to get an ‘A’ this year,” Corrigan says. “You just have to get through it.”

Vast swaths of both northern and southern Illinois remain unplanted, as farmers elected to take prevented planting on acres that remained too wet to plant after June 5.

Benton, Ill., farmer and crop consultant Kelly Robertson predicts southern Illinois will have anywhere from 20% to 25% of its acres in prevented plant, including corn and soybeans. That varies between county and even township; he predicts some areas will have as high as 60% to 70% prevented plant acres.

“It’s rare to run into somebody that got everything planted,” he adds. It’s not unusual to observe bean fields where it’s clear the farmer drug the planter through the field, and beans are laying on top. In one extreme case, a farmer spread soybeans with a buggy and ran a roller over the top, because that counted as planted for insurance.

In southern Illinois, later-planted corn appears to be the best. Robertson says late-May and early-June plantings are faring well; April is OK.

From north to south, corn planted mid-May was universally rough, as it took heavy pounding rains in the weeks after planting. Prophetstown, Ill., farmer Jeff Brooks planted corn for four days starting on May 13.

“The 16th was a terrible day to plant corn,” he says now. They couldn’t turn another wheel until early June.

Across central Illinois and pockets of northern and southern Illinois, hundreds of thousands of acres were planted during the first week in June, when corn planting progress jumped from 45% to 73% in a single week, and soybeans from 21% to 49%.

Central Illinois farmers like Marty Marr, Jacksonville, know they were especially fortunate to get planted when they did. And yet, big questions remain for that crop, including what poor planting conditions will mean for the crop and the soil.

“‘Fit’ was a moving term in April vs. June. Most would’ve preferred to wait but didn’t think they could,” Corrigan says. The result: uneven stands, flooded-out spots, varying shades of green, and untimely herbicide and fertilizer applications.

So what next? What do agronomists and farmers recommend for Illinois’ struggling crop? Here’s a look.

Rain makes grain, but sun makes sugar. “It’s all about the weather to come,” Marr says. Specifically, crops with sidewall compaction need continued rain to keep roots moist. They also need sunshine — and not just GDUs. Farmers like Jeff Brooks have stunted corn that hasn’t yet taken off and grown, because it hasn’t had enough heat.

“We’re going to have virtually all our corn pollinate in August,” Brooks says. “The sun needs to shine. If we don’t get any more sunshine, we’ll be in a world of hurt, and we may be collecting crop insurance anyway.”

Robertson points to 2016 when lack of sunshine kept plants from photosynthesizing as they should. “It’s possible to have enough heat but not enough sunshine,” he says. Watch GDUs and solar radiation from July through August. Robertson tracks GDUs and solar radiation weather data through Encirca, and says you can also find that data through Weather Underground and the National Weather Service.

Corrigan points out that we need GDUs early, too. A hot, sunny day in June gives the crop more push than a day in September.

Spend money carefully. Corrigan puts it bluntly: “Are you saving your bushels or your insurance company’s bushels? If you’re below insurance trigger and there’s no way to get above it, quit wasting your money.”

Independent agronomists warn that folks selling products will be looking to make up spring losses, and may push products you don’t need. “Be very specific about what you choose to spend money on and what you don’t,” Corrigan adds.

Be realistic about yield goals. Robertson says today’s hybrids are not bullet-proof, and there are two schools of thought for figuring yield potential. “The first says, ‘I’ve planted corn in June before. I’m hoping for 200, looking at 150. We’ll look at the crop before trying to grow 200-bushel corn.’

“The second says, ‘I got it planted, this is my plan. I’m still shooting for the big yield goal.” And as Robertson says with a laugh, “One of those schools of thought is gonna be right!”

In the end, he plays the odds, which says this isn’t going to be a bumper crop. He’s taking 30% off his yield goal and shooting for actual production history. If an individual field looks better and the forecast looks good, he’ll consider more N, but on a field-by-field basis.

Pollination will shed more light on yield goals. Corrigan doesn’t see 240 to 280 bushels per acre happening on the fields she works with. The best fields might make 220, and 10 miles from there might make 150. “This won’t be a year to be judged by the whole county,” she says.

The fungicide decision. Corrigan says there aren’t a lot of fields she’d put fungicide on this year, unless she saw a disease. If you have disease at an economic level that will make the crop suffer, then use it. “Be judicious with fungicide. I don’t think most people can afford to use it to keep the crop alive a week longer,” she says.

How much nitrogen is left? Test to see how much nitrogen you have left out there. Corrigan says you can get a test for both nitrate and ammonium, and have the results back from virtually any soil test lab in a couple days. Definitely test for nitrate, and if you use anhydrous, test for ammonium, too. “That will tell you where you need to be on nitrogen,” she adds.

Get out and look. “Scout, scout, scout,” says Marr, adding they’ll be emphasizing their usual protocol even more this year.

“GOAL,” is what Robertson tells his farmers: “Get out and look.” Get out of the pickup, walk the field, carry a shovel, dig roots. Don’t rely on Twitter, and don’t think the shot gun approach of spraying or putting extra on will work this year.

“The money to be made this year is in managing field by field,” he says. “You’re probably going to have a field or a farm that’s not as wet or got planted better and will have greater yield potential. Protect those bushels.”

Weeds aren’t a cover crop. “If weeds go to seed on prevented plant acres, you’ll have the revenge of 2019 to deal with for the next five years,” Corrigan says. On planted acres, watch center canopies and consider spot-spraying in thinner areas. Four-wheeler sprayers make be a lifesaver this year or — like one of her clients — a dirt bike and a backpack.

Choose cover crops well. Cover crop seed is short, so be particular about where you get it and that it’s clean. Corrigan suspects tight seed supplies will cause some sources to dip into old lots — like the contaminated Conservation Reserve Program and pollinator plot seed that Iowa dealt with a couple years ago. If you get oats and radishes, you’ll know if there’s more than two seeds in there. If you get a mix of six or seven cover crops, you can’t eyeball contamination.

And if you’ve never used cover crops, keep it simple with something that will die over the winter, like oats and radishes.

Soil health. It’s rough out there due to wet planting, standing water and more. Corrigan says ground is so hard, it’s tough to get it away from soybean roots without breaking the roots. If your prevented plant acres are equally hard, Corrigan says to, “get some living roots out there.” Plant cover crops. Use a bigger mix only if you know what you’re doing. Oats with their fibrous roots and radishes with their tuberous penetrating roots will help soil structure.

You are not alone. Corrigan emphasizes that everyone’s in the same boat. Farmers from 40 to 65 years old, from Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri and Ohio, all told her they planted in conditions they never dreamed they’d plant into.

Elephant in the room: harvest. Emphasis on getting planted and then dealing with what came up has soaked up most of our attention so far, but harvest will likely be late and wet.

“Nobody’s thought that far ahead yet,” Robertson says. “Nobody wants to and I understand why. There’s not going to be corn shelled in August and September around here. A lot of dryer gas will be run.”

Stick to basics. “This year is back to basics,” Robertson says. “Nothing fancy. GOAL: get out and look. Stop the truck and check. Continually reassess yield potential.”


IDOA pushing for disaster help

The Illinois Department of Agriculture has announced a number of new initiatives to help farmers in the wake of an extraordinarily wet 2019 planting season, including $400,000 in cover crop incentives to be administered through local soil and water conservation districts.

According to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, more than 40% of the state’s population (beyond Cook and collar counties) have been impacted by flooding. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency and IDOA are working to secure federal assistance.

IDOA Director John Sullivan asks farmers to report planted acres to local Farm Service Agency offices as soon as possible, and far before the July 15 deadline. “The sooner the planted and ‘prevent plant’ acres are reported, the sooner the federal government can best determine the extent of losses to farmers and producers,” he says. 

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like