February 01, 2023

Each year of farming is a new lesson

‘Harvest is a marathon — slow and steady’

MAPLE PARK, Ill. — Each year, Steve Pitstick develops a plan for his farm and adjusts during the growing season based on the conditions.

“The real key to being a good farmer is being able to adjust on the fly,” said Pitstick, who farms about 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Maple Park. “You need to have situational awareness and be able to adapt.”

Corn yields are about average, Pitstick said, and the weed control is very good.

“The plan we developed last winter had a few hiccups and detours, but it turned out pretty well,” he said.

The later planting date helped with the weed control this year.

“Weeds were actively growing, so we matched the application to the timing of the weeds,” the Kane County farmer explained. “If we plant corn in April, a lot of the weeds are not starting to grow until the middle of May and the herbicide is degraded.”

As of Nov. 8, Pitstick expected to complete his harvest in about two weeks.

“We had a wide planting window this year from May 10 to June 3,” he said. “I had an interesting experience with a hybrid that was planted in two fields located right across the road.”

The field that was planted two weeks later yielded almost 50 bushels per acre less.

“Most of that lower yield was from test weight because the corn didn’t mature,” Pitstick said. “The later planted corn was 50-pound test weight versus a typical 56- to 58-pound test weight.”

Next year, Pitstick said, it could be totally different.

“Every year it’s a new lesson and I’m still trying to figure it out after 45 years,” he said.

“I’ll retire when I have the best year ever and everything is perfect,” Pitstick said. “This year is pretty close, but there’s a few things I’ve got to perfect yet.”

“We had a real good soybean crop,” he said. “A lot of farmers were disappointed because they thought the yields would be better based on rainfall and growing conditions.”

The lower yields go back to the two- to three-week delay for planting.

“That’s typically two nodes less because the plant adds one node about every five days,” Pitstick said.

“Now we’re in a Pivot Bio trial and I don’t see anything dramatic, but I will analyze it closer post harvest,” he said.

“This is the first year I’ve used it and it was applied during planting in furrow. Next year they have an option of treated seed.”

The cost was not much less than nitrogen.

“This is a replacement for 25 to 40 pounds of nitrogen,” Pitstick said. “But I know nitrogen works, so I’m hesitant.”

“My typical nitrogen program is 30 to 40 pounds with the planter and then side-dress the balance of nitrogen along with sulfur,” he said. “I’m trying to apply nitrogen as the plant needs it to limit environmental exposure.”

In addition to Pitstick operating the combine, the harvest crew included one grain cart and two semi trucks.

“We usually have two grain carts, but one of the guys is gone today,” he said. “Today we’re hauling the corn to an elevator that’s about 1.5 miles just up the road.”

The logistics of moving the grain can be a challenge.

“We’re harvesting about 4,000 bushels of corn per hour, so that’s a semi load every 15 minutes,” Pitstick said. “If the turn time of the truck is half an hour, you need two trucks, but if the turn time is one hour, then you need four trucks.”

It can be difficult to find drivers for semi trucks.

“If somebody has a CDL, they’re most likely fully employed,” Pitstick said. “To find someone to work for two months is a challenge or if they’re retired, they might not what to work this hard.”

Pitstick typically plans for 12-hour days during harvest.

“You can’t burn the candle at both ends,” he stressed. “Harvest is a marathon — slow and steady.”

Although farmers know a lot about soil, there is still more to learn, Pitstick said.

“So, people say we’re degrading organic matter in our soils, but long-term corn on corn can raise organic matter from the residue,” he explained.

“If I had time, I’d check the fence lines that have been there 100-plus years for organic matter to get a basis of what it was in its natural state,” he said. “Then I’d test my field to compare if I’ve built or depleted the organic matter.”

Pitstick will do some minor tillage once corn harvest is complete.

“We use a high-speed disk in the corn stalks to incorporate dry fertilizer because I like to get some cover on it,” he said. “Then I will no-till soybeans into the stalks next spring.”

Soybean fields will be left untouched this fall.

“Going into the winter, there will be a lot of talk about the 2023 farm bill,” said the chairman of the Illinois Soybean Association.

Including crop insurance in that bill is vital, Pitstick said.

“It is more vital than ever when we’re investing $1,000 per acre to plant a corn crop,” he said. “We need the backstop of crop insurance because we have a lot of money at risk.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor