GRANITE FALLS, Minnesota — “Don’t give up on it, yet.”
That’s the message the 2021 soybean crop seemed to be putting out as August turned to September, said Dorian Gatchell, owner of Minnesota Agricultural Services LLC, of Granite Falls, Minnesota.
Gatchell talked about the dry year in an interview Aug. 24 for the 2021 Agweek Corn and Soybean Crop Tour. His agronomy consulting business covers clients in about a 30-mile radius around his hometown of “Granite,” where parents on both sides still farm.
Minnesota Agricultural Services works primarily with corn and soybeans, but some of his clients grow sugarbeets for Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Co., at Renville, Minn. A few have small grains.
Gatchell said the 2021 drought conditions will limit yields but that will vary based on soil types and topographies — worse than others.
Minnesota had widespread rain events during the week, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service weekly crop progress and condition report on Aug. 30, 2021. Corn was rated 36% good to excellent, with 50% dented, just ahead of the 46% five-year average. Soybeans were rated 31% good to excellent, with 40% “coloring,” compared to the 15% average for the date.
Gatchell said late season rains will help the 2021 soybean crop in his area more than the corn, but it will “eliminate the potential for (corn) yield going down any faster,” he said.
Farmers around Granite shoot for about 200 bushels per acre on corn, Gatchell said. He thinks some corn fields will push to 175 bushels per acre, while others will barely get to 100 bushels. Generally, corn yields have inched up over the years.
“I think we’ve got a yield that’s going to be better than what everybody thinks we have,” he said. “At least I’m optimistic that that’s the case.”
Bean yields are difficult to assess when there are late-season rains, and they picked up about 3 inches in late August.
Soybean farmers around here typically look for a 55- to 60-bushel per acre yield. Beans face many threats, but he believes there is a yield “cap” affected by soybean cyst nematodes, which he said is “by far the biggest yield-robber.”
Bean plants are shorter than in other years, but that isn’t so worrisome. He’s seen some fields with adequate potassium while others show potassium-deficiency because of dry conditions.
Off-target dicamba herbicide is again an issue in cupping non-resistant bean varieties. He said the problem is "annoying," noting there are less printable words he could use.
Diseases should start to manifest themselves, if they’re going to show up, he said, referring to phytophthora root rot and stem rot, as well as white molds. Soybean aphids weren’t much of a factor this year. Some farmers had two-spotted spider mites in areas that are drier.
“This is not the same as those years,” Gatchell said. “We had different (farming) practices. We did start with tremendous (sub) soil moisture this season, whereas I believe in some of those other years, we started out somewhat depleted.”
The 2018 and 2019 years were very wet, and some of that moisture obviously has been helpful this year, he said.
Gatchell’s area has a “deficit” of 7 inches to 9 inches in rainfall this season.
“I’m not so sure those are the numbers we should be looking at,” he said.” What we’ve been receiving has been coming in low amounts, and slow.”
The rains this year came were in “a few tenths” at a time. To compare, the rains in the past several years have been gully washers — 2 inches to 3 inches in an hour or less.
“We don’t get that absorbed into the soil; there’s a lot of runoff. I think what we have been getting this year, we’ve been keeping,” he said.
Gatchell generally urges clients to consider strip tillage systems, as a way to “weather the weather.”
He said adoption of that technology is still “minor” in his area, perhaps fewer than 1%. He said the fact that farmers are able to band-apply fertilizer with strip tillage is a big benefit.
Most farmers are aware of the technology, but it is expensive to change systems, especially for smaller farmers. All tillage equipment is costly, but strip tillage machines can be many tens of thousands or even more than $100,000, depending on the number of rows and the fertilizer equipment.
“It’s catching on — not always the younger guys, not always the older guys,” he said.
Sharing equipment is difficult, but doable, if planned. It is not always easy because different farmers uses different row widths and different brands of guidance. The “seasons of use” can be shortened by weather.
“You also have to have someone in the fall that knows what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it,” he said. “You can’t just hire the retired farmer down the road, and put him in the tractor to do tillage” with strip-tilling.
The strip tillage equipment provides less residue disturbance and less tillage, and is more able to absorb moisture.
“I know on wet years it really makes a difference, and hopefully we’ll see that on dry years as well,” he said.
When it was extremely wet two years ago, farmers with strip tillage were able to go in and harvest because their soil had more load-bearing capacity, compared to soils that had been tilled conventionally.
Granite Falls area had a smaller-scale wind and rain storm with 100 mph winds, just prior to the Aug. 10, 2020, “derecho” that flattened more than 550,000 acres for Iowa farmers.
Many of the conventionally-tilled fields laid down — some in interesting patterns.
“The strip till fields stood,” he said. The strip-till system allowed water to infiltrate, and kept aggregates and soil structure for the roots to hang onto. Meanwhile, the aggressively-tilled soil was more like “a bowl of sugar.”
The conventionally-tilled corn crops fell down.