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Relearning curve: Unpredictable 2019 revisited old lessons, offered new variability

For more than 30 years, Purdue Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen has shared his expertise with farmers throughout Indiana.
For more than 30 years, Purdue Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen has shared his expertise with farmers throughout Indiana.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — What did farmers and those involved in crop agriculture in the Midwest learn from 2019? Nothing new.

“I think we simply relearned a lot of stuff. I don’t think we learned anything absolutely new,” said Bob Nielsen, Purdue Extension corn specialist.

Nielsen offered some thoughts on the 2019 corn growing year in Indiana and the Corn Belt, as well as ideas of how farmers can prepare for similar years ahead.

Some of the primary lessons learned from 2019, according to Nielsen:

1. Late planting does not guarantee low yields.

“I’ve been saying this for years. Late planting, by itself, does not guarantee an absolute bad yield. It certainly increases the risk of low yields, but it doesn’t guarantee disaster,” Nielsen said.

2. Modern hybrids are more resilient and capable of handling stress.

“There’s no question that the improvements in genetics over the years is what is allowing these crops to handle years like this like they do. It just continues to blow me away at how we can get out of years like this with pretty good yields,” Nielsen said.

3. Soil compaction sticks around.

“Soil compaction is the gift that keeps on giving. We had an undoubtedly wet spring, a lot of wet tillage, a lot of soil compaction created with that and we all planted because we were trying to get this crop in the field. We planted on the wet side. It’s a gift that keeps on giving because when that dry spell set in, the fields that began to show drought symptoms first were, indeed, the fields that had the worst degree of soil compaction and that is the curse of soil compaction,” Nielsen said.

4. Moisture during grainfill is important.

“Here at the farm and much of this area of the state, even that lack of rainfall in August and September, that really took a toll on yield,” Nielsen said.

5. Late-maturing corn is slow to dry down.

“We don’t expect a lot of drydown in mid to late October any year. We had so much of our crop maturing in early to mid October, and it seemed to take forever and a year. We were surprised by it for some reason, but we never dry very fast in October, let alone in November,” Nielsen said.

The New Normal

Speaking to an audience at the Purdue Top Farmer Conference at the Beck Agricultural Center, Nielsen said farmers need to adjust to a new normal of unpredictability.

“Normal weather today can be defined as an unpredictable number of unpredictable extreme weather events each occurring unpredictably with unpredictable severity,” said Nielsen, adding that those events range from torrential and sudden rains to latent drought to sudden and sustained cold spells.

“How do we stress proof crops to avoid things we can’t predict?” Nielsen said.

Nielsen said some answers include the continuation of seed companies to improve resiliency of hybrids along with yield potential.

It also means that farmers may need to delve deeper into the details of their hybrid selection.

“It also reinforces the importance for us to do an even better job of choosing hybrids that we want to grow by not just focusing on yield, but really asking hard questions of a seed dealer. Prove to me that this hybrid is stress tolerant,” Nielsen said.

With no control over the weather, farmers can focus on everything they can control and determining those factors field by field.

“It’s even more crucial that any agronomic decision you have control over, you make the best choice you can make, the best decision you can make. Sort of related to that is the importance of identifying and taking care of yield limiting factors on a field-by-field basis,” Nielsen said.

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