PEORIA, Ill. — Recent studies have proven a link between early soybean planting and higher yields. If Illinois farmers could ever get into their fields, they would love to test it for themselves.
An “extended winter” fraught with above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures, however, has kept machinery in the sheds of many Lincolnland producers. An April Fool’s weekend snow storm that stretched across the central United States punctuated the long, miserable winter and early spring in Illinois and elsewhere, observed Jim Angel, Illinois state climatologist.
“The bad news is that some areas saw 3 to 6 inches of snow or more,” he said on April 2. “The good news is that the warm ground, warm air and sunshine today quickly took care of it. The highest total I saw was Augusta, Illinois (Hancock County) with 9 inches.”
Angel pointed out while it is not unusual for northern Illinois to see snowfall after April 1, what was surprising was the amount dumped in areas of southern Illinois counties such as Hancock, which is in the Alton-St. Louis area at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), most of southern Illinois experienced between 125-800 percent of normal precipitation from March 29-April 4.
The extended poor weather is causing headaches for early-planting gurus such as Kris Ehler, a certified crop advisor (CCA) and agronomist with Ehler Bros. in Champaign County. Ehler, who has planted early soybeans with success in the past, has been personally impacted by the late-season snow and excessive rain.
“We are pretty disappointed with the weather this year,” he said. “The opportunities to put in any really early trials have been really limited. My one and only trial was put in on March 22.”
Rainfall or snow impacted the Champaign-Urbana area on 15 of 31 days in March, according to the Illinois State Water Survey. Four of the first five farming days in April were also lost to snow, record low temperatures, rain or thunderstorms.
Ehler explained early planting is advantageous to yields because the more sunlight soybean plants are exposed to, the more they will flower. “The earlier you can get that plant up, out of the ground, established and growing in advance of the summer solstice, the more you increase your chances to increase yield,” the Illinois Soybean Assoc. CCA envoy said. “Soybeans hunger for sunlight.”
Through early planting research, “we have learned we had completely mismanaged this crop. (Soybean) is not the crop that you have to wait and wait for optimal soil conditions to plant. You can absolutely abuse this crop; it is extremely hardy. And it will reward you, through its amazing way to compensate, even under harsh conditions.”
The old notion of always planting corn before soybeans has been stood on its ear – no pun intended – by new planting recommendations that encourage soybeans before corn.
“Corn does better when planted in warmer soil conditions. I think if everyone had the chance to do last year over, no one would have planted a kernel of corn until (mid-May). We have totally mismanaged our planting windows,” Ehler said.
There is still plenty of time to put early, but not super early, soybeans in the ground at this point, he added. “Data show we don’t start giving up yield until about May 10, and then we are giving up 3/10 or 4/10 of a bushel every day. I’m not pushing the panic button yet.”
The shift to early planting of soybeans can be credited to one market factor, according to Ehler: Demand.
“Soybeans are not the crop you sandwich between corn rotations any longer, For the last few years, soybeans have been the economic driver of the farm. Everyone is looking at soybeans in a new way. Early planting is a management practice that doesn’t cost anything, and it brings anywhere from $80 to $100 per acre in additional revenue,” he explained.
The average temperature for the first five days of April was 34.6 degrees in Illinois, more than 13 degrees below normal and more than 5 degrees cooler than the first five days of March 2018, Angel reported. The NWS’ long-term forecast through June calls for a likelihood of wetter and warmer weather than usual in the Midwest, according to its Climate Prediction Center.
The weather issues could affect crop rotations decisions in Illinois and elsewhere, according to Patrick Kirchhofer, manager of the Peoria County Farm Bureau. “As far as double-cropping soybeans after wheat, the cool weather has delayed the early growth of wheat, which would delay the planting of double-crop soybeans after wheat harvest in late June-early July,” he said.
“It depends on late-summer rains as far as double crop soybean yields. Typically farmers would like to double-crop soybeans prior to July 1 to reduce possible damage or loss from an early frost.”
Winter wheat headed in Illinois stood at 2 percent on April 1, with 7 percent rated very poor, 9 percent poor, 38 percent fair, 40 percent good and 6 percent excellent. This compares to just 2 percent rated very poor, 5 percent poor, 28 percent fair, 54 percent good and 6 percent excellent a year prior, according to the April 2 USDA Illinois Crop Progress and Condition report.
Nationally, winter wheat was rated just 32 percent good-to-excellent, down from 51 percent a year earlier. This represents the poorest initial rating for winter wheat in the United States since 2002.
Coincidentally, DTN’s Winter Wheat Index stood at just a 65 rating on April 2, also the lowest since 2002. Prolonged wet and cold weather across most of the Wheat Belt is the prime culprit, analysts say.