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Unusually dry growing season shows importance of resilience

Unusually dry growing season shows importance of resilience

Season-long droughts are rare in Minnesota, so 2021 gave farmers an opportunity to see what it’s like to farm in that situation.

According to the Climate Journal, the drought in some parts of Minnesota was “as serious as anything experienced in over 40 years, though for most of the state, it was the worst drought in 10-30 years.”

Farmers did a great job managing their crops in 2021 despite the drought.

Across the U.S., 2021 soybean production is estimated at 4.42 billion bushels – up 5 percent from 2020. The 2021 yield is estimated to average 51.2 bushels per harvested acre, right in line with the 2020 average yield of 51 bushels per acre.

Minnesota’s average yield is 49 bushels per acre, just a slight dip from 50 bushels in 2020, but with more acres of soybeans in 2021, production is up 4.87 million bushels (MB) – from 369 MB in 2020 to 373.87 MB in 2021.

Despite the dry start to the 2021 growing season, the potential existed for even higher yields, said Seth Naeve, University of Minnesota Extension soybean agronomist. Soybeans like dry conditions and started out very well. There just wasn’t enough rain for higher yields when August and September arrived.

“We had a very dry profile early on, and soybeans got up and were going pretty good,” he said. “Had we had good rainfall in August and September, we would have had crazy, crazy good yields.”

Another way to state that is in most years, Minnesota has too much rainfall early in the soybean growing season, and that often leads to a yield penalty.

“Soybeans have this problem with wet feet early on and the fact that we were dry early on, actually provided some benefits for the crops, but then these were negated by the dry season late in the year,” he said.

According to Minnesota Ag Stats, 99 percent of 2021 soybean planting was completed by May 30 – one week ahead of 2020, and three weeks ahead of the five-year average.

“Condition ratings for the season started on May 30 with 76 percent rated good-to-excellent, but dry weather reduced good-to-excellent ratings to a low of 29 percent for the week ending Aug. 15,” according to the 2021 Minnesota Crop Progress Review.

Naeve said there were some take home messages for farmers to consider when evaluating their management systems.

• Good drainage early in the season is important.

• Tillage practices may need to vary from field to field.

• Water use changes throughout the growing season.

• Pre-emerge herbicides are very important.

• High yielding varieties are a requirement.

For most people, the passing of time dulls their memory of what happened in the past. That’s why it’s very important to keep notes and information about each growing season.

“We can’t manage around a single year, because we never get a repeat of the previous year,” Naeve said. “We have to look at things under a longer-term lens.”

The reality, he said, is it is very unlikely for 2022 to be a repeat of 2021 in terms of growing conditions.

“It’s much more likely we have something like we’ve seen in the last 20 years,” he said. “We have to take a long-term risk/reward view of things.”

In most years, Minnesota’s farming areas receive too much rain early in the season, and mega storms bringing 4-10 inches of rain at a time have become more frequent. Correct drainage, water storage, and tillage are the key factors for water management.

Naeve said it is not only important to maintain soil residue and use minimum tillage from a soil conservation standpoint, but also from a soil moisture retention standpoint, too. These practices will allow the rainfall to infiltrate into the soils, so the water stays where it lands, and goes through the profile rather than across the soil. Keeping higher residue levels saves soil and maintains water-holding capacity.

Increasing soil organic matter maintains water in the soil profile as well as the nutrients needed for the growing crop.

“Production practices that encourage increased soil organic matter make the crop more resilient both in wet years and dry years,” he said. “Things like soil organic matter help when we have too little or too much moisture, or it’s too hot or too cold. That’s one of the things that farmers can strive for to make their production systems more resilient.”

Quality high-yielding seed and other best management practices like planting early are important.

Taking advantage of as much of the Minnesota growing season as possible, farmers increase their odds for soybeans to yield their highest.

“The key for soybeans is choosing high-yielding varieties,” he said. “There is a huge variation between the highest and lowest soybean variety yields, and the highest yield varieties tend not to cost anymore.”

Naeve asks farmers to be proactive in their herbicide business decisions this year. We don’t know exactly what products are going to be available, so farmers can’t be complacent and rely on products available to them as rescue treatments.

“Farmers have to be more flexible, but that also means being more prepared and putting more of a premium program together for their pre-emergence applications to give them a little more flexibility,” he said. “That’s generally a more expensive program but building a better pre-emerge program buys the farmer flexibility to deal with later-season problems.”

It’s good to look at accurate information from past growing seasons and determine what has worked or didn’t work. The next growing season is always unique, though, and that requires farmers to be ready to adjust as needed.

“Being nimble in 2022 is a good place to start the growing season,” Naeve concluded.

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