Farmers betting on weather, economy with this year’s crops

Winter wheat is transitioning to a rich golden color these days, which Monroe County farmers hope translates into “gold” in return for their efforts and risks. Pictured is a rapidly ripening field last week along Route 3 south of Waterloo. (Alan Dooley photo)

Farmers don’t have to visit area casinos to gamble. They get out of bed in the morning facing risks and asking themselves questions about their next moves and bets.

What will I plant? Where? When? And then they have to ask the same questions about fertilizers and pest control measures.

This spring has been a time of encouraging early results for some and unanswered questions for others. The big three cash crops here are wheat, corn and soybeans.

Wheat is planted at the end of the previous year’s harvest. There are a number of varieties, but it is generally called winter wheat. That crop is turning from green to gold right now, with harvest time hopefully to arrive in 10 to 14 days – weather permitting.

As wheat ripens, it dries. When it reaches a moisture measurement of 18 percent, it is harvest time. But if harvest-ready wheat is rained on, each kernel swells and loses what is termed “test weight,” which is measured in pounds per bushel.

At an extreme, the wheat may actually sprout — at which point it becomes virtually unsellable.

Another threat is so-called “scab disease,” or vomitoxin. This disease can be controlled by proper spraying of specific chemicals, applied either by ground sprayers or by aerial spraying by helicopters and crop-duster planes. If scab disease is too prevalent in wheat, that wheat may also be hard to sell.

Corn is next on the harvest agenda, with various results being observed countywide.

Some farmers took the “when” risk and planted in the first week in April. Their corn has grown quite well and towers above neighboring corn planted only two weeks later. Corn needs sun and doesn’t tolerate wet soil well, according to Gateway FS crop specialist Matt Keller.

Temperatures are not a real issue, he said, if the plants are dry enough and get enough sunshine. Corn that was planted late has seen little sunshine and has endured excessive rain. When that happens, the plants don’t take up oxygen or nitrogen and are stunted and yellowish.

And they don’t recover, which may necessitate some re-planting.

Beans are running late this year, according to Keller.

“They don’t do well at lower temperatures,” and some have also flooded, he said. Keller did note though that beans are both an early and late crop around here, so they may be replanted.

But that’s not cost-free.

Area farmers tell of these issues. Dave Krebel, who farms in the bottoms near Prairie du Rocher, said early corn looks great. Krebel said that his wheat looks pretty good, but wet fields may make it difficult to harvest.

He also told the Republic-Times that harvesting hay for cattle feed has been a problem with the repeated rain episodes.

“Once it is cut, it needs three days to dry before it can be bailed,” he said. “And we are generally getting only two dry days before it rains again.”

John Niebrugge, who farms in the Valmeyer area, said he got his corn and beans planted early and they look good. He also cautioned that cold temperatures and rain have not offered ideal growing conditions, though.

Both Krebel and Niebrugge noted that the rain, including rain on higher areas inland from the bluffs, runs down into the bottoms and collects there. Normally, that water would simply be allowed to run into the Mississippi River through large storm sewer-like drains called gravity drains.

But since water runs downhill, whichever way that may be, large gates in the drains are generally closed when the river reaches 23 feet elevation on the St. Louis gage. Monday morning, it stood at 27.44 feet, having risen 1.67 feet in the last 24 hours.

Most of this rapid rise is due to high water originating on the Missouri River. With gates shut, water either ponds in low areas or must be pumped over the levee into the river, with costly-to-operate electric pumps. And if it stands high against the outside of the levees for a prolonged time, it starts to seep back through and under the levees.

If temperatures ranging from the low 40s to mid 90s and extended periods of cloudy weather have not been challenges enough, too much rain has not tipped the scales, and the constant threat of new chemical-resistant diseases are not enough to worry about, harvest time will also be a time of great possible concern.

Last year, for example, the region saw bumper crops ripen and come to harvest – often with record-setting yields of double the average. On the other hand, prices paid by buyers were nearly half what previous years had offered. Twice as much for half as much is not a formula for great rewards.

So, that half of the equation remains to be determined for 2015, in an ever-present calculation determined by supply and demand.
People who think farming is a simple process of planting seeds, watching them grow, harvesting the results and pocketing profits may be surprised to learn that it isn’t so simple. Adding issues such as choosing whether or not to buy crop insurance and how to time the purchases of expensive farm machinery to match income flows are added issues that cloud future decisions.

But farmers are resilient people. They rise early, work hard and return to the risk-reward game every year. Often, this is true down through generations as well, with farms being handed down to young family members. Added numbers of new farmers are emerging from agriculture programs in high schools and colleges.

Agriculture and its associated businesses is undoubtedly the number one economic engine in Monroe County. As you drive down the highways past fields, look more carefully and closely at what is taking place.

Like the beauty of leaves on a large tree, the intricacies of what is going on in the fields is a unending story.

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