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March 5, 2004

Past crop season teaches hard-luck lessons, agronomists say

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - If experience is the best teacher, then 2003 provided a graduate-level education for Indiana farmers.

From wild weather extremes to pernicious pests to expensive inputs, the hard-luck lessons came fast and furious. Producers should learn from the past crop season but not allow the knowledge to cloud their common sense, said Bob Nielsen and Ellsworth Christmas, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service agronomists.

Making wholesale changes in crop management strategies based on an abnormal year like 2003 would be a mistake, the agronomists said. They urged farmers not to abandon good agronomic practices, such as crop rotation and selecting proper hybrids. Farmers might, however, consider planting as soon as soil and weather conditions permit.

"Producers should not make dramatic changes in their practices simply because of what happened last year," Nielsen said.

The roller coaster ride that was 2003 began with nearly ideal conditions. By early May about half of Indiana's corn acres were planted. Rain and cool weather followed, delaying further corn planting and slowing the development of young soybean crops. July brought heavy rain and the worst flooding in some areas in about 50 years. Dry conditions then set in, along with the largest attack of soybean aphids in the pest's brief Indiana history.

Throughout the season, farmers paid more for nitrogen-based fertilizers, the result of higher natural gas prices - a chief component of anhydrous ammonia.

When all was said and done, fall harvest produced an unspectacular outcome. State soybean production slipped 15 percent, to 203.3 million bushels, at a below-average yield of 38 bushels per acre. Corn production was up from 2002, but the state average yield of 146 bushels per acre fell from an earlier estimate of 150 bushels per acre. Flood damage contributed to the loss of 200,000 acres of crops statewide.

Given the choice of planting corn early or late, recent history suggests farmers might want to get into their fields at the first opportunity, Nielsen said.

"We've seen unusual planting seasons the last few years, where we get lengthy rainy periods that force some planting to occur extremely late," he said.

"Although as agronomists we would often advise people to hold off on planting until conditions are perfect, I think Mother Nature is telling us that there are situations where you probably ought to be pushing it early, just to make sure it gets in on a timely basis. The downside risks of excessively late planting - early June, for example - usually outweigh the risks of a poor crop stand and its affect on yield by planting a bit on the early side."

Planting soybeans earlier than normal is risky, but possible, Christmas said.

"The ideal window for planting soybeans in Indiana, regardless of where you are, is May 1 to May 10," Christmas said. "That curve is pretty flat during that 10-day period. That's not an accident. If you think of when soybeans flower - around June 20 - and if you are growing the recommended maturity group for your geographic area, count back six weeks and you're right in the middle of that ideal window. If soil temperatures are warm and it's dry enough to plant, you can back that up to April 25, or maybe a few days earlier. But I would first want to know that the forecast for the next week to 10 days is for continued good weather."

Soybean growers should pay special attention to seed size this year, Christmas said. The various stresses plants endured in 2003 left many soybean pods with undersized seeds. Smaller seeds mean more seeds per pound sold to farmers, he said.

"With seed counts of 3,600-3,800 seeds or more per pound, it's going to be critical that producers spend time calibrating their planters or drills," Christmas said. "They also need to be very cautious as they switch seedlots, because there could be a difference, depending on where those beans were produced. You might have one seedlot that has 400-500 more seeds per pound than another seedlot."

Seed count differences could cause a farmer to overseed at planting, which could cut into their profits, Christmas said.

"If you overseed, you're going to spend more money for seed than you need to," he said. "And if you get your seeding rate too high and we have good growing conditions this year, you'll have lodging come harvesttime, and then could run the risk of field losses."

Christmas and Nielsen listed other lessons farmers can apply to 2004 crop production:

• Corn and soybean hybrids with strong stress tolerance stand a better chance of surviving weather and pest problems. Producers who planted soybean varieties with stacked resistance genes, for example, could have been spared crop damage from Phytophthora, a soilborne root disease.

• Applying nitrogen fertilizer to corn as a sidedress once the crop has emerged is often more cost-effective than broadcast applications. Sidedressing not only prevents over-applying nitrogen, but also provides fertilizer at a time when the plant needs it most.

• Some forms of nitrogen are less expensive than others.

"Not every nitrogen source costs the same per pound of nitrogen," Nielsen said. "While all nitrogen has gone up in price, it's still true that anhydrous is a cheaper form of nitrogen than 28 percent solution.

"Some folks have begun to go away from anhydrous because of safety issues, concerns about meth drug makers and the thefts of anhydrous on the farm. But, nonetheless, if they're looking to cut costs, anhydrous is the way to go."

Writer: Steve Leer, (765) 494-8415,

Sources: Bob Nielsen, (765) 494-4802,

Ellsworth Christmas, (765) 494-6373,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,
Agriculture News Page

Related Web sites:
Purdue Department of Agronomy
Chat 'n Chew Café

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