OTTAWA, Ill. — It was striking to Kevin Nelson, a certified crop advisor, how few acres he saw planted this spring on his daily 50-mile commute to work from his home in Ottawa in La Salle County.
“From April 1 to June 1, I only saw four fields planted on the entire route,” he said of his northeastern Illinois travels.
Turns out 20% of the usual acreage there was never planted, instead designated as prevent plant acres.
The challenges this season brought will be felt by farmers for several years to come, Nelson said.
“It was stressful all year round. We are thankful today (Nov. 12) that most of the beans are harvested here,” Nelson said.
He said 40% of the soybeans were harvested in the first week the ground was fit this year. He estimated about half to 60% of corn in the area had been harvested as of Nov. 12. Statewide on the same date, the USDA reported 71% of corn had been harvested compared to 96% last year and 93% for the five-year average.
“Beans were planted a month or two late this year,” said Nathan Kleczewski, University of Illinois crop scientist, with many first-time soybeans planted at the same time as double-crop soybeans following wheat.
Yields were as scattered as planting dates, with some at the university’s research site in Ewing coming in at 30 to 40 bu./acre and others in Champaign 60 to 70 bu./acre.
Corn yields are likewise variable and coming in at higher moisture levels than an average year.
“Every step of the way this year has been a challenge. Just when you think it can’t get any worse — it might not get worse, but it doesn’t get better,” Nelson said.
On Nov. 11, when snow slowed harvest, there was a rash of combine repairs, so farmers could be ready to go when the weather changed, he said.
“They were pushed to the limit,” Nelson said. “This year has been hard on people, hard on equipment, hard on families.”
The consequences of this year’s weather are many. Long-term no-till fields may be getting some tillage this year, he said. Farmers will be doing more soil management. Some may be thinking of tiling problem areas when they can.
This season also will also “restock the weed seed bank,” Nelson said. It was too wet for farmers to be able to control weeds in a timely manner.
Farmers’ plans for fertilizing had to change, and crop rotations have been thrown off.
The ripple effect also reaches suppliers.
“It’s the third bad season in a row,” said Kreg Ruhl, crop nutrient manager for Growmark.
Challenges started in the fall of 2018 when farmers weren’t able to get their dry fertilizer on or ammonia applied. He said producers were happy to get out of last year alive.
This spring, fertilizer application and planting were delayed by wet weather again. And an early November snowfall and cold temperatures stalled harvest and fertilizing this fall. But Ruhl said the season isn’t over yet.
“We’re not ready to throw in the towel yet,” he said.
From a supply standpoint, there is an adequate amount of fertilizer to meet needs this season. But if it wasn’t for prevent plant, it might not have been possible to get all the fertilizer to farmers when they needed it this spring. With 94 million acres of corn to be planted, system constraints can be felt, Ruhl said.
The flooded river system played havoc with transportation as well, and Ruhl is also looking ahead. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to close six locks and dams on the Illinois River from July to October 2020 to repair them. Suppliers are hoping to get re-supplied before the shutdown, but challenging weather and high rivers are making that difficult, he said.
Also, they are impacted by the current propane shortage. There is competition for the same tanks that carry propane or ammonia.
These are among the “system constraints” that suppliers and farmers are dealing with this year, Ruhl said.
As for good news, the surplus supplies of nutrient components mean there is price pressure. Some nutrients are being sold at historically low prices.
“It’s a good value,” Ruhl said.
Seed supply ends strong
Likewise, companies supplying seed were impacted by the wicked weather.
“This year created a lot of challenges for seed corn and seed soybean growers to get planted timely,” said Jason Morehouse, Beck’s production manager.
Eventually Beck’s growers got their allotted seed planted, but field selection was changed to make it all work.
Despite the challenges, seed corn harvest in the Midwest was completed by mid-October, Morehouse said. There were still some soybeans coming in as mid-November neared, he said Nov. 11.
Yield was another concern that had seed growers wondering if there would be enough corn to supply the need. Some hybrids were disappointing in areas, but that happens every year, he said.
“Overall the supply is good,” Morehouse said.
Agriculture is a humbling business to work in during years like this.
“In agri-business we can really empathize with what farmers went through,” said Morehouse, who grew up on a small, diverse livestock and crop farm in northern Indiana.
In working with farmers, especially those flooded out, Morehouse said he can certainly understand the emotion and despair they went through this year. Sometimes they had to make agronomic decisions that might not usually be the right thing to do.
This year makes everyone reflect and be grateful to have a crop at all, Morehouse said. The crop was as successful as it is this year because the warm weather in September helped it mature. Also, it wasn’t too hot during pollination.
“Most of the June-planted corn benefited from that (heat),” he said.