BRADFORD, Ill. — On Twitter, it’s called #plant13 and is
being used by farmers and agribusinesses to track the progress of a planting
year that has many farmers on the edge of their seats, if not in their tractor
cabs in the fields.
“At some point, the calendar starts trumping your
fundamentals,” said Rob Sharkey of rural Bradford in Bureau County.
Sharkey spoke on May 10 in the lodge of his hunting
outfitting business. Outside, a chilly rain was falling steadily, and
temperatures over the next two days of Mother’s Day weekend were forecast to dip
close to freezing.
“The ideal spring would be an April 15 start with the ground
temperature being perfect and the soil condition being perfect — that’s the
ideal one,” said Sharkey, who had not started planting.
Last year, he came close to that, planting a small plot on
the last day of March — “I wanted to plant in March for once,” he said — and the
rest of his corn and soybeans around that April 15 date.
This year, it’s a different story.
Cool, wet weather that included a couple of late-season snow
events has kept many farmers in the northern and north-central parts of the
state out of their fields later than they normally would be. Sharkey said May 10
is a date that is a bellwether date for many farmers.
“It’s in a lot of guys’ minds, that May 10 date. After May
10, a lot of people feel you start losing yield. How much yield? It depends on
the year,” he said.
Farming on his own for 15 years, Sharkey tries to remember
the latest year he can — 2009, and stay positive.
“The best corn I ever grew was in 2009, and I didn’t get
into the field until May 21. But it ate up so much money drying that corn, I
don’t want to do that again,” he said.
Sharkey said he’s tried to focus on his fundamentals, how he
wants conditions to be when he plants his crop.
“You just want to keep your fundamentals. In my mind, I want
the fundamentals. I want ground temperature and ground condition. I don’t want
it too wet or too cold,” he said.
But when asked when the turning point is, when the calendar
overrides that, Sharkey admitted it was close.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Let’s just say I’m not too far
away from it.”
In farming long enough to learn from past mistakes, Sharkey
said this is a year to rely on that experience.
“I guess I’m getting seasoned enough that I’m drawing on
past mistakes. I’m trying to be patient this year,” he said.
That is until he sees the neighbor’s tractor the day before
heading out to plant.
“I tell myself fundamentals and we’ll stick to them and then
I’ve got a neighbor who goes out and kicks up dust and it just gnaws at you all
day,” Sharkey said.
He noted that planting is the time of year when farmers make
their biggest roll of the dice.
“This is the most stressful time in farming — it’s planting.
You don’t know if the decisions you’re making are right with timing, with soil
conditions. You’re talking big money between the differences if you go out this
week or next week,” he said.
While in the eastern Corn Belt, conditions might seem the
exact opposite of the 2012 drought year, Sharkey said this year could be another
good example of why crop insurance and a strong safety net is so vital for
“Last year, we started out fantastic. I remember looking at
those crops and thinking this is going to be a bumper crop. The other thing is
although there is a decent-sized window to plant corn, the later you start
planting corn, the more you can start dropping yield. In that case, if we stay
wet and stay cool and then dry up or heat up, we could easily have a worse year
than last year,” he said.
But once he gets started, Sharkey said the new technology
can help shorten the planting time.
“The technology we’ve got in the tractors definitely helps.
It takes some of the fatigue off so we can run long, long hours,” said Sharkey,
who said he guessed he would take a week for corn and a week to plant soybeans.
On May 14, he was in his fields, planting corn. The
conditions are different further north.
“The early corn is starting to come up right now,” said
Dustin Spears of Martz-Spears Farms in rural Carroll County. “We could get all
of our corn in by May 16.”
Spears has been farming with his father-in-law, Tom Martz,
for eight years, and he also is a DeKalb seed corn dealer.
“We’re about two-thirds done, and in five more days, we
should be done with corn. About half of my customers are done with corn,” Spears
He added that this year has seen quick emergence of even
“Last year, we got in the fields two weeks before this, but
the corn sat there for two weeks. This year, the corn is popping right up,” said
Spears, who said they started planting April 28 this year and April 5 last year.
Spears noted that even though farmers worry about planting,
when the window opens, they can get planting done quickly.
“As farmers, we worry about it all spring, and then if you
give us a week or two, we can get it done,” he said.
He said that the soil conditions in the Carroll County area
have been favorable.
“There were a couple of days when it was marginal, but we’re
pretty hilly, so we dry out good,” said Spears, who noted that even with late
planting, the big question mark of growing season weather remains.
“It’s coming up faster than it has in the last few years,
and at the end of the day, we might look good. It all depends on what happens
with the rest of the summer,” he said.
For Kimberly Meier, who farms with her family near Ridott in
rural Stephenson County, planting Pecatonica River bottom ground has given her
some perspective in her 18 years of farming.
“I have probably 5 percent of our corn planted. For some of
our ground, it’s one of our later years. For some of the river bottom ground —
I’ve read so many times that people are getting nervous — we’re a little more
laid back because we have had so many years that it’s wet,” she said.
But she did say that even with that experience, 2013 is
shaping up to be one of their later planting years.
“We’re starting to get a little antsy. This is definitely
one of the later years,” she said. “Especially after a year like last year when
it was so early.”
Meier Farms raises corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, some
of which goes to feed for Meier Meadows, the family’s dairy operation.
“It almost makes silage a little bit easier. Good silage
corn is shorter season,” Meier said. “This might mean we’re chopping in
September rather than August.”
She said that with late planting, attention will turn to the
frost date in the fall.
“The concern will be when it is going to freeze this fall.
I’m more worried about grain production if we get an early freeze and the corn
isn’t mature,” she said.
Meier also noted the major differences that can occur in
planting conditions in fields just a few miles apart.
“I planted a 100-acre high ground field, and it could have
stood a half-inch of rain. Two miles away from the river bottoms, I tried to go
down there, the water is basically gone, one puddle in the field and I can’t get
through it. Two miles up the road, the dust was flying so much I could hardly
see the planter,” she said.
Meier also observed that one factor making the long wait
seem longer was, for many farmers, a lack of spring fieldwork to do.
“One thing that makes it seem longer is so many more people
got fall work done earlier. They had anhydrous on and tillage done. Everybody
had everything done last fall, so we had nothing to do this spring,” she said.
Emerson Nafziger, crop production specialist for the
University of Illinois Extension, said the most planting progress has been made
in the north.
“There was a fair amount of planting near DeKalb. Driving
from (Champaign) up and north of Bloomington, the tilled fields got more
numerous and some had been planted. I didn’t see any that looked like they were
in perfect shape to work and plant — they are still fairly wet. The most
progress has been in the northern and northwest part of the state,” he said.
Nafziger said that some planting has occurred in the western
part of the state, too.
“We had a fair amount planted at the Monmouth research
center before rainfall stopped that, and they had some chances to do some near
Quincy, as well,” said Nafziger, who said that planting around the state has
“Far southern Illinois has not had quite as much rain. I
think they got a little bit planted. Our south-central area is pretty much
sopping wet. There might have been a little bit planted in the first week in
April. It’s certainly no big areas with everything planted.”
Nafziger said that while comparisons to 2009 are inevitable,
the crop progress ultimately will depend on the weather for the rest of the
“It was an unusual year in that we had cool and wet all
season long, and we ended up with really pretty good yields. I don’t think we
can take a lot of lessons from that or turn it into an expectation, but
certainly it makes us know that the good yields are still possible. We’ve been
saying all along that we are heavily dependent on what happens during the
growing season than when we get it planted,” he said.
“It’s going to continue to be the case that rainfall in July
and August are going to be a lot more important than what happens now.”
Nafziger said that the combination of constantly-improving
seed genetics and seed treatments mean that seeds are better prepared to survive
in less-than-perfect planting conditions.
“We have a pretty decent stand planted on April 5. It was
wet and cold and poor conditions. It came up in about three weeks, which was
when we expected it, and the stand is pretty good. That is the remarkable thing,
to illustrate that corn seed can emerge under those conditions. Thirty years
ago, we would have had to replant that,” he said.
“It’s a range of things. It starts with the genetics, the
way the seed is harvested and handled. The seed treatments certainly do help
against diseases. The result is a seed that’s just about as good as it can get
in terms of its ability to come up.”
In Lee County, Andy Pratt of Grand Prairie Farms in rural
Dixon, said progress has been good.
“We’re probably 65 percent planted with corn. We were
planting again today,” he said on May 10. “The soil is improving. It’s in pretty
good shape. The wet spots have gone away.”
Pratt said that planting conditions have appeared to get
better north of Interstate 80.
“From 80 north, the further north you go, the better it
gets. Carroll County and Ogle County are in better shape than we are. By the end
of next week, most of this area will be done planting,” he said.
Pratt said he was comfortable with the timeframe, even
though it may be a little later than usual.
“By the calendar, maybe we’re a little late, but by the heat
we’ve had so farm, we’re not behind. We haven’t lost any heat we would have had
by having the corn in the ground in April,” he said. “We’re normal for the
Pratt, who farms with his father, Mike, and brother, Peter,
said he’s happy with the progress of their early-planted corn.
“Some of the early corn is out of the ground, I saw some
corn up. Now maybe we can slow down, relax and enjoy it a little more,” he said.
In western Illinois, Hunt Farms in Blandinsville, had
planters rolling by May 14, but on May 10, Colby Hunt, president of the
McDonough County Farm Bureau, could describe conditions in his part of the state
in two words.
“They’re wet,” he said.
Hunt, who has been farming with his family since graduating
from college in 2003, said this is shaping up to be one of the later planting
years he can recall.
“We’re 30 percent planted on corn. We planted 60 acres
around April 15, and then we got that seven-inch rain and planted more and then
we haven’t been planting for over a week now,” said Hunt, who said they were
anxious to get back to getting the crop in.
“We’re nervous. We bought an additional planter, so when we
get started, we’ll be ready to go full force.”