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Pockets and windows: 2019 year in review

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader

Peter Thomison, Ohio State University Extension corn specialist, likes to refer to the 2019 growing season as one filled with “pockets and windows.”

There were pockets of Ohio that had windows of opportunity to plant on time. There were pockets of Ohio that never had a window to plant. There were pockets that had short windows, and pockets where the windows that came too late. Ohio experienced both pockets of flooding and drought in 2019. Wood County led the state with over 52% of the acres never planted due to wet soils. By the end of the growing season, over 80% of the state was considered abnormally dry, or in some level of a drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“In spite of all the tremendous variability in the 2019 growing season, the yields that are being reported are surprisingly good,” Thomison said.

The 2019 crop year was really set up by the wet fall and prolonged harvest of 2018 that flowed right in to a persistently wet spring for much of Ohio. The 2019 growing season started out wet for most of the state, though windows of opportunity to plant varied from location to location.

“Parts of the state were typical in their planting — more so in the south. Our trials in the south represented earlier planting times relative to other parts of the state, but similar to what growers in the area were experiencing,” Thomison said. “The northwest was much later, delayed more than the rest of the state, mostly due to the wet weather and a function of the heavier soils found in that region. There were pockets all across the state that experienced delays this spring. Timing was everything this year. This year we had the corn crop planted in fairly wet soils, and the root systems in many cases were very marginal. It was a prescription for disaster if we ran into a drought, and in some cases, we did.”

Parts of the state continued to have adequate moisture throughout the growing season, but after the wet start, some pockets of Ohio slipped into a drought by mid- to late-summer. South of Interstate 70 was the most affected by the late season drought.

“In central Ohio the rainfall stopped in late July and August. Southwest and south central Ohio were dry in August. This would include the trials at Washington Court House, the Western Research Station, and Greenville,” said Allen Geyer with The Ohio State University Department of Horticulture and Crop Science. “The Western Research Station was under moderate drought as of Sept. 17, with Greenville included under moderate drought on Sept. 24.”

So, with an extremely late start for many fields in northern Ohio (particularly northwest Ohio), a wet start for the whole state, followed by dry conditions in the south, there was plenty of concern about extremely low yield potential for crops heading into harvest this year.

Small grains, had a challenging 2019 that started with the challenging harvest conditions in 2018.

“Looking back, 2018 was an extremely wet harvest. Harvest for soybeans was extremely late last year,” said Laura Lindsey, Ohio State University Extension soybean and small grains specialist. “The late harvest for soybeans then affected the small grains getting planted across Ohio. Small grains were planted late, and in less than desirable conditions.”

For those wheat and barley fields that did get planted, the challenges continued in 2019.

“After the first of the year, we had the polar vortex with very little snow cover to protect the small grains,” Lindsey said. “Both wheat and barley were damaged. It was extremely wet and extremely cold at the same time.”

The alfalfa crop was also impacted negatively by the polar vortex last winter and then the wet spring weather was challenging for all crops. Barley suffered in particular.

“Small grains do not like wet feet. Barley is the most sensitive to wet feet, and also most susceptible to winterkill,” she said.

Soybeans too had lackluster yields in 2019.

“Soybean yields in Ohio are going to be wide ranging. This is largely due to the soil moisture during the growing season, both excess and drought. Soybean planting date across the Midwest is still the number one factor in soybean yields,” Lindsey said. “With the late planting this year, that is also very unfortunate. This year the excessive wet, followed by the dry also had a huge impact.”

Yields, though, in general, have been better than anticipated for Ohio’s corn crop.

“Having worked with corn for so many years now, I would not say that I’m flabbergasted, but it is kind of mind boggling to think that a crop planted so late could be this resilient and produce such extraordinary yields. So far, the jury is still out, we could see an average yield of 140 bushels per acre (bu/ac.) or it could be around 160 bu/ac,” Thomison said. “I think 2009 was a similar year in that it also was a late year; 50% of the farmers in Ohio planted late that year. In 2009 we had a fairly moderate growing season that ended with yields above the trend line. I am not sure what this year will do for us because we have certainly had stress conditions. So far, the Corn Performance Trial yields have been surprisingly good. We have seen good yields in the northeast and in the northwest, because they have had frequent rainfall. The southwest has been dryer this year and is not expected to be as good. One thing we are always interested in is what the grower’s yields are around us. Typically, they are very similar to the averages of our Performance Trials. It suggests that if you have good field conditions and management practices, even with the later planting, you can achieve good yields. There was tremendous variability across the state. Combine that variability with the late planting, and then to get these kinds of yields is impressive. Some of these fields we did not put on the maximum amount of nitrogen that we could have, and we still came out with pretty good yields.”

So, with all the challenges — too wet, too dry, disease issues, nitrogen loss — 2019 offered, why are yields not a total disaster?

“Considering the good yields being reported, and looking back at past years when we did not have a lot of rain, the temperature often made a difference,” Thomison said. “In 1992 we had a very cool growing season. This was one of the first high yield years that occurred early in my time in Ohio. In that summer the growing degreed day (GDD) unit accumulation at South Charleston was much less than anything we had available in terms of varieties available for those limited GDD units. It was also very cool that summer. It was very dry, and very cool, especially in August. The corn was not really under stress. It did not have much water, but it was not hot. Then we ended up with record yields. The cooler temperatures may have prolonged grain fill, and helped contribute to the record yields.”

That could be behind the surprising 2019 yields as well.

“We did have the cooler temperatures, probably at a beneficial time this year because it was in the grain-fill period. It also probably helped with the diseases this year as well. It did not promote the rust diseases. Some of the leaf diseases have also not taken off, except for in pockets,” Thomison said. “Most of the corn got planted late, so it did not experience that period of hot weather that we had. There were areas that were hot for some of the corn that was planted earlier. Some of the areas where the May corn was planted, it was hot during pollinations, but typically our Ohio temperatures are not severe enough to inhibit kernel set because of poor pollination. Temperatures above 95 degrees and the strong blasting winds can have a negative effect on pollination.”

Improving genetics also helped corn avoid a catastrophe this year.

“The hybrids we have now are so much better. The companies have all bred in asynchronous pollination or what is called the Asynchronous Interval, where the silking occurs at the same time as tasseling or even before tasseling and pollen shed,” Thomison said. “As far as stalk lodging, we had a recipe for disaster set-up with the poor root systems and drought conditions. So far, I have not heard a lot of concern about stalk lodging. That is a good example of how resilient the corn has become.”

Thomison is working on a root lodging study first conducted in Wisconsin in the late 80s.

“We are now looking at it with some modern contemporary hybrids. Our responses are different, but we are also planting at higher populations now — 25,000 then verses 35,000 now,” he said. “Our responses to late season root lodging are different and we are seeing more root lodging when we plant at higher populations. An average hybrid can tolerate drought stress much better than the average hybrid could even 10 years ago.”

Another factor in the success of corn this year was the adjustment of hybrid maturities to reflect the late planting dates.

“One thing of interest was the number of people switching hybrid maturities. That is something we do not typically recommend as long as they plant by the end of May or first of June. This year it got so late we had a lot of people switching, some even to ultra-early hybrids shorter than 100 days. A survey is being conducted to see what we can learn from that. Sometimes short season hybrids can be very high yielding,” Thomison said. “A couple years ago, short season varieties were looked at for guys that wanted to be able to harvest early to apply manure and still plant a cover crop. It was a three-year study, and in it we found there was a 11% to 12% yield loss in those varieties. In a regular planting timeframe, there was a yield hit to the shorter season varieties, which is why the seed companies don’t typically recommend them in Ohio. Interestingly, the yield loss was not as great compared to the typical maturities that were also planted late.”

And, with growing concerns that the unusually wet 2019 planting season (and its various pockets and windows) may be more the norm in the future, corn production may have to evolve accordingly.

“If you consider the weather anomalies like we have experienced lately, and look at our planting dates statewide using the date when 50% of the corn is planted, approximately a third of the time the corn is planted after the optimum date. If you look at the last 10 years or so, over 30% of the time, over half of the corn is planted later than normal. That does not include those years that we have had a lot of corn replanted. Often those replants take place in late May and early June, and when that has happened, we have not heard about a lot about dramatic yield losses,” Thomison said. “As we consider the shifting weather patterns, it may indirectly give another reason to consider some of those shorter season varieties. When planting gets pushed back into the middle of June, we may find that the full season corns will handle those conditions, but if they do reach black layer, they are going to be extremely wet. If we do see the season pushed back with more later plantings, we may see more of the secondary pest problems emerge. I have heard more about ear worm damage this year than I have for some time. People are now getting accustomed to later planting times, and not considering them late anymore. If you look at the Ohio Agronomy Guide, we would like to be planting April 15 if conditions are suitable. More often than not we are planting our crop later and later in Ohio.”

Ohio Field Leader is a project of the Ohio Soybean Council. For more, visit ohiofieldleader.com.

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