The Road to Recovery for 2019 Cropland

Whether prevented-planted or late-planted, many crop fields need special care going forward after an extremely tough weather year. Experts share advice for what’s next for best practices this fall and beyond.

By Marilyn Cummins

Even with nearly three-fourths of his crop acres unplanted and still under water behind a river levee in early September, Andy Spiegel counts himself lucky among his neighbors in Northwest Missouri. His home near Watson was safe on higher ground, and good friends and neighbors banded together to move 20,000 bushels of soybeans out of his bins in a single day and evening as flood waters came over the levees.

Heavy rains and swollen rivers there and in other parts of the Midwest and Great Plains broke levees, submerged entire towns and left farmers and townspeople alike homeless last spring and summer and into this fall. Some 650,000 bushels of water-soaked soybeans in a huge outdoor pile combusted spontaneously during the hot days of July and burned for weeks at the Gavilon grain elevator west of Rock Port, Missouri. All around him, Spiegel knows of farmers who lost their stored grain and whose once-fertile fields were scoured by flooding and buried in sand.

“We had a dry place to come home to every night, so we felt very fortunate about that,” Spiegel says. For now, like so many farmers this year, he is preparing to deal with the repercussions of unplanted fields. Nearly 19.6 million agricultural acres were reported as prevented-plant by USDA as of Aug. 22, 2019, the most by far since tracking began in 2007.

Late Planting Increases Frost Risk

For northern Corn Belt farmers who finally were able to plant after lengthy weather delays, a huge question is whether or not their corn and soybeans will mature before the first frost hits.

Darren Goebel, AGCO director of global agronomy and farm solutions, says he anticipates that corn from northern Illinois to up into Canada could lose that race, depending on when the first damaging frost arrives. “By maturity group, hybrids require a different number of growing degree days or units (GDUs) in order to reach maturity,” he explains, and as days and nights get cooler, “every day we’re losing GDUs.”

In order to plan ahead, producers can calculate whether their corn is likely to “black layer” (reach physiological maturity) or not before a possible frost. If some fields won’t make it, it has implications for yield and contracting, and may mean either selling it as silage corn or being prepared to manage combine settings, grain drying and storage for high-moisture and/or frost-damaged corn, Goebel says.

The University of Wisconsin offers facts and advice about frost impacts on corn yield and grain quality, plus tips for harvesting and valuing silage here.  As for monitoring the frost outlook, the North American Ensemble Forecast System generates probability maps up to two weeks out; choose “under 0°C” as product type to generate a frost-potential map.

Agronomic Repercussions This Year and Beyond

Beyond frost worries, Spiegel is concerned about even longer-term effects for himself and other area farmers, such as what standing water has done to nutrients in the soil. He’s also not happy to see the patches of weeds and grass growing in fields too wet to work or treat.

He says he got about a quarter of his acres planted on the hill ground that he’ll be able to harvest with his Gleaner S77 combine. As for the flooded bottom ground, in September Spiegel was still waiting for the trapped water to leave. “It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to pump it, so we were hoping to let gravity do its thing,” he says, but the river levels had so far remained too high to open the structures in the levee to let the water escape.

“I think we’ve got a long road in front of us, but I think it’s going to come back into production,” he says. “It’s just going to take some time, effort and money.” Less fortunate neighbors where levees failed “have tons of sand to deal with. Some ground is so scoured and littered with pockets that I’m not sure it will ever come back into production.”

Greg Luce, the University of Missouri state grain crops extension specialist, says conditions in the state are all over the board, with the worst being the 1.4 million prevented-plant acres, the fourth-most in the nation behind South Dakota, Ohio and Illinois, in that order. “Seeing field after field with no crop is depressing,” he says. Farmers in many cases are facing tough scenarios, he says, with those in areas with unrepaired levees in limbo for next year, too.

“Much of the crop that did go in was planted late,” which will mean having to dry grain, Luce says. “And we typically don’t deal with frost concerns in Missouri, but this year, an early freeze would be a bad thing.”

Harvesting and Storing Wet Grain

Corn seed begins to sprout after bursting out of a destroyed grain silo due to flooding on a farm in Bellevue, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Corn seed begins to sprout after bursting out of a destroyed grain silo due to flooding on a farm in Bellevue, Neb. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Based on his years in the grain business, and after talking with growers for three days in a row at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, this August, Gary Woodruff is quite worried about crops this fall. As a district manager for GSI and a specialist in grain conditioning, he says he doesn’t think “2009 was even close to what we potentially will see this fall” in terms of having to harvest and dry high-moisture and potentially frost-damaged grain. He thinks the harvest season has potential to be the worst since the early 1960s in some areas.

In many major grain states (other than those like Kentucky and Tennessee with more-normal springs), he says, the corn and soybeans that did get planted went in barely before the cutoff date. “A lot of corn that was planted has lost six weeks of fall drying and maturing weather,” he says, leading to extreme variations in moisture, the potential for frost damage and major implications for grain drying and storage.

Woodruff gives the following recommendations for harvesting and drying grain this fall:

  • Expect to leave grain in the field if you try to wait until moisture gets down to 19-20% at harvest, due to late start date, slower harvesting of wet grain and increased chance for adverse weather as the season progresses.
  • Go at least a percentage point drier in grain moisture than normal to store grain successfully to spring, meaning a maximum of 14-14.5% for corn and 13% for soybeans, due to expected variations in moisture at harvest.
  • If you must store more than a year, dry corn all the way down to 13%. With frost damage, dry down to 13% if planning to keep more than 30-60 days, and turn dryer temperatures down from the normal 210 degrees F to as low as 140-150 degrees to keep frost-damaged kernels from turning brown or even black from caramelization.
  • Expect grain drying to take up to five times more hours than in a normal season, and realize that bushels-per-hour dryer capacity will be cut by a half to a third of normal, if starting moistures are 25-27% or 33-34% and the target is 13-14% for corn.
  • Be prepared to deal with more fines that affect both capacity and the efficiency of a grain dryer. In severe conditions it may be best to empty, clean and re-start the dryer every 3 to 5 days instead of the normal 7.  The capacity gain will more than make up for the down time.
  • Even before a frost, if it’s obvious that corn is not going to fully mature, consider cutting it for silage if that is an option in your area.

“This is that one in 10 years we always talk about that if you don’t have a heat source, you have no chance of drying your grain in a bin with natural air,” Woodruff says. While it may be too late to do much about adding drying capacity, he says to make sure all equipment is in tip-top shape to withstand many more hours than normal.  “This is not the year to cheat on any of the rules for drying or storing grain.”

Bringing Back Soil Health

If growers have not yet planted a cover crop on prevented-plant acres, both Goebel and Luce highly recommend doing so where conditions permit, not only to prevent soil erosion and build organic matter, but also specifically to help reduce the chance of fallow syndrome in corn next spring.

“Submerged fields have been in an anaerobic condition, so beneficial organisms like mycorrhizal fungi can have low populations or be killed entirely,” Goebel says. “Mycorrhizae are like a natural extension of your plants’ roots, and if it’s all dead, it limits yield and the ability to withstand drought.”

Luce says the mycorrhizae fungi help corn roots take up phosphorus and zinc, and need to be replenished. If fields conditions allow, Luce says to plant cover crops yet this fall that are good host crops for mycorrhizae, such as cereal rye, wheat or oats as well as legumes like clover. “A solid field of tillage radishes or other Brassicas will add very little mycorrhizae to the soil,” he says. Cereal cover crops will need to be terminated very early in the year before planting corn, he notes.

“I’d much rather have a cover crop than a field full of weeds creating a huge seed bank,” Luce says, even though the weeds do provide some soil erosion control and can contribute some biomass to the soil. “But some fields were so wet that you couldn’t get in there to plant one.”

Fields that were flooded or had standing water this year may also be depleted of the rhizobia bacteria soybeans need for nitrogen fixation, he says. “It’s a good idea to not risk it, so plan on inoculating soybean seed in the spring.”

Correcting Compaction When Conditions Are Right

Growers who had no choice but to work and plant fields in wet conditions may have created compaction problems, says Larry Kuster, AGCO senior marketing specialist. If it’s a fairly normal fall and growers can harvest, he recommends first going out and probing the soils with a compaction test to see how bad the damage might be. “We used to think that deep soil compaction could be eliminated by freezing and thawing, but we don’t get enough of that to break up compacted soil that way. We’re pretty dependent on mechanical means to eradicate deep soil compaction.”

Luce agrees, but says “the issue will be finding the optimum time to do that. We need a dry fall. In some areas hit by flooding, that may be a year or more down the road.” It’s a balancing act, he says, to stay off fields until the time is right but still be able to produce and harvest a crop. “There’s a lot of art as well as science in these things.”

The University of Missouri Extension is compiling information for farmers about what worked best to renovate fields in the state after the bad floods of the 1990s. In some cases, large moldboard plows and disk plows were brought in to go deep and mix deposited sand down into the fertile soil below.

Spiegel reports sand a foot deep on a lot of other farmers’ ground in his area, with pockets and channels cut by running water. “We don’t have that to contend with here, so we feel very fortunate.”