Farmers hoping to buy some time from Mother Nature

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Just a couple of weeks ago, soybean pod set was the slowest its been since 2005 at only about 79%.

Wisconsin farmers have a lot of issues on their minds these days — trade wars, attacks on ethanol, low commodity prices — but chief among them is the timing of this fall's plant-killing freeze.

Farmers face yield losses that reach 15% to 20% without a late freeze, given the cold and wet spring weather that caused corn and soybeans to be planted two to four weeks later than normal.

Corn is at risk of lower yields, since the majority of the state's crop was planted late. Soybeans, requiring a shorter growing season than corn, have largely caught up this summer, experts say.

"The yield prospects are looking much better. However, whether we're going to get all the benefit of that is going to depend on how we get through the balance of the season," said DTN ag meteorologist Bryce Anderson during a DTN webinar on crop development. "The corn denting rate is still running about 22 percentage points behind  average, and just a couple of weeks ago, soybean pod set was the slowest its been since 2005 at only about 79%. So, the sheer ability of crops to reach maturity is the ongoing question."

According to the latest NASS Wisconsin Crop Progress and Condition report, corn and soybeans remained well behind normal development, with only 31% of corn dented, two weeks behind last year. Over in the soybean fields, just 85% of the crop was setting pods, over three weeks behind average.

Harvest weather may be favorable in much of the Midwest in September and concerns about an early first freeze for many farmers may have diminished, DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said.

Northern Wisconsin typically sees a first freeze the last week of September while farmers in the southern half of the state will see temperatures below freezing in early to mid-October. 

A stretch of below normal temperatures have slowed the maturity of crops at a critical time. And a lingering pattern of heavy showers this week has kept farmers out of the fields, delaying the harvest of fourth crop hay and the planting of small grains.

"We need some extra heat units to catch up," said the reporter in Portage County, allowing crops to continue their slow march to maturity. 

The forecast from the National Weather Service calls for a warming trend into the weekend, extending into next week with temperatures ranging in the mid-70s to mid-80s. Skies should also clear up a bit, with fewer chances of significant precipitation.

Anderson said there has been a lot of anxiety about late-maturing corn and soybeans and what even a normal-timed frost might do in various parts of the country.

Easing fears

In fact, NOAA is forecasting below-normal harvest temperatures in the north and central Midwest. Anderson disagrees.

Instead, Anderson said harvest weather may be favorable in much of the Midwest in September and concerns about an early first freeze for many farmers may have diminished.

While temperatures are expected to be above normal during harvest in the Midwest, rain showers will also hang around in October.

"We've had mild temperatures over the last week, and that will certainly help things out. But the better question is will crops be able to at least get through the first average occurrence of 32 degrees without having any real challenges?" he said.

Anderson said late planted crops will be in a race against time as the average freeze dates approach. A lag of a week's time would help crops to "make up ground", he said.

"It looks like both the Dakotas and the majority of Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and northern Nebraska will see a first frost in the last part of September with the rest of the Midwest seeing a frost in the first 10 days of October," Anderson said. "This will certainly help the yield prospects as well."

Anderson says fall weather conditions will be favorable for late crop development. Forecast models for the fall harvest ranging from September through November, show the temperature prospects near to above normal. 

Bryce Anderson

"This is obviously quite promising and it should help crops—even the late planted ones—get close to full maturity before a first frost," Anderson said. "But that doesn't mean we'll get all the drying we'd like to see. But as far as corn reaching black layer and soybeans get the most available out of the late pod setting and pod filling, I think we're going to have some pretty decent conditions on the temperature side."

Unfortunately, forecast models show above normal precipitation across the Midwest for much of October. 

"Because of the kind of precipitation weather pattern coming in, we're obviously going to see a slower, and later harvest," Anderson said.

November is expected to remain on the mild side temperature-wise and Anderson noted that the precipitation signal is looking drier as well.

"November is looking better on the precipitation side, offering maybe some better conditions in terms of field conditions. Hopefully we won't have to battle mud all the way through the harvest season," he said. 

A snowy, wet fall in 2009 forced many farmers to leave corn standing in the fields until spring.

Anderson says 2019 is shaping up to be similar to 2009 in terms of late planting and a late harvest.

"In 2009, rain and snow set in and lasted all the way through December," Anderson recalled. "In some areas, farmers were unable to get the harvest in until the following spring. Many of them decided to let the corn dry out in the fields. But I don't think 2019 will be quite like that."

A little more time

Each day that the first killing frost is delayed helps buy the state's corn crop at little more time to reach the finish line.

Only 35 percent of Wisconsin's corn acres were planted by mid-May, nearly 2 weeks behind schedule. By early June, the state's farmers had planted 58% of their corn, 17 days behind average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Flooding, heavy rains and cold temperatures meant farmers nationwide were unable to plant a record 19 million acres this year. Joe Lauer, UW-Madison Agronomy and UWEX state corn specialist, said farmers in Wisconsin typically plant about 50% of the corn acreage by May 7.

"Significant corn acres were planted in July this year and the planting date sets up your season," Lauer said in his blog. "If you are delayed or planting is extended then workload is delayed or extended as well."

The planting delay means Wisconsin's corn crop now needs a couple of weeks to fill the kernels and add weight. Normally, corn kernels would fully fill around mid-September, but it's now more likely to happen by month's end.

Without a late freeze, many farmers will see smaller, lighter kernels.

"Some corn will not make grain or be too expensive to dry. Some corn will not make good corn silage due to lack of grain development prior to a killing frost," Lauer added. 

Farmers also want more time so corn can dry in the field, rather than drying it in bins, either on the farm or at an elevator. 

Without a late freeze, many farmers will see smaller, lighter kernels and may choose to chop corn for silage instead.

"Even though a late, wet harvest incurs extra expense, and I know any expense over and above the typical harvest expense is too much, at least there doesn't appear there will be a big spike in drying prices," said Anderson, adding that both adding weight and drying is made tougher by fall's shorter days and cooler temperatures.

Trade disputes, lower demand produce pressure

Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist said this month's USDA crop production report could shrink yields, a move that may boost corn and soybean prices.

The trouble, the ISU economist said, is that the agency also has reported continued declining demand for corn and soybeans, driven in part by escalating trade wars and declining ethanol demand.

The U.S. and China have battled over trade with increasing tit-for-tat tariffs over the past two years, hitting soybeans, hogs and other farm goods hard.

China slashed its U.S. farm purchases last year 53% to $9.2 billion from 2017. Soybeans purchases took a huge hit, falling nearly 75% to $3.1 billion.

And since taking office, President Trump's administration has granted 85 oil refineries a pass from buying 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel, killing demand for 1.4 billion bushels of corn used to make it, the renewable fuels industry says.

A yield-damaging freeze could drive prices higher, Hart said, but farmers also would face discounts with lower grain quality. "Farmers are feeling caught between a rock and a hard place," Hart said.

Donnelle Eller of the DesMoines Register contributed to this report.