August 22, 2019 - Ag Notes

Farm Progress Show ILLINOIS Stage Line Up

The Farm Progress Show is in Decatur, Illinois Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Please come visit us in the University of Illinois tent. Many of the voices you hear regularly on WILLAg will be on stage throughout the week. The brokers are most likely to appear during the 10am or 2pm shows. Click on the any of the Farm Progress  Show calendar events below to see a full listing of the lineup. You'll also find a link to our location on the show site. You can scroll the calendar up and down to see more...

August 22, 2019 - Ag Notes

Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour

*note - The 3-year average is 15/16/17 because 18 pulled it up sharply. The red bar below represents the PFTour state estimate.

July 19, 2019 - Ag Notes

Corn Prices Heating Up

Despite the USDA raising 2018–19 marketing year-ending stocks for corn in last Thursday’s WASDE report, corn prices moved higher to end the week. December corn futures prices returned to the levels seen before the June Acreage report. As Todd Gleason reports, strengthening basis levels indicate supply issues to come if the dry, hot weather persists over large areas of the Corn Belt.

By Todd Hubbs, University of Illinois
link to farmdocDaily article

From the demand side, the WASDE report contained bearish information. Corn exports during the 2018–19 marketing year came in at 2.1 billion bushels, down 100 million bushels from last month’s projections. Higher corn prices and abundant crops in South America provide an outlook for continued weakness in corn exports as we move into the next marketing year. Brazil and Argentina corn crop levels sit at 3.98 and 2.0 billion bushels respectively. In total, corn production in both countries is up 1.5 billion bushels over last year. A combined corn export forecast for Brazil and Argentina comes to 2.75 billion bushels, up 881 million bushels from last marketing year. Over the previous four weeks, export inspections averaged 22.6 million bushels. Corn exports currently total 1.872 billion bushels. For the marketing year, export inspections averaged 37.7 million bushels per week. The slower export pace for corn looks to continue since outstanding sales currently sit at 212 million bushels for the current marketing year. Japan and Mexico account for approximately 57 percent of those sales.

Along with corn export weakness, the WASDE report lowered consumption for food and industrial uses by 20 million bushels and feed and residual use by 25 million bushels. Feed and residual use fell based on disappearance associated with the June 1 Grain Stocks report. Food and industrial uses showed weakening demand. Ethanol used for corn maintained the 5.45 billion bushels projection from the June report. Weekly ethanol production averaged approximately 1.6 million barrels per day over the last twelve weeks. The increased production stands in contrast to the weak performance over the first quarter of 2019. Supply weakness in cash markets led to rising corn bids at eastern Corn Belt ethanol plants. Indiana and Ohio saw corn basis at ethanol plants exceed 50 cents last week. Illinois saw some bids at ethanol plants at 30 cents over. The lack of corn in many areas may hamper ethanol production moving into the next marketing year, particularly in the eastern Corn Belt. In total, 2018–19 ending stocks increased 145 million bushels to 2.34 billion bushels.

Yield and acreage uncertainty continue to be the critical factors for corn price prospects. The potential for corn yields falling below the current 166 bushels per acre projected by the USDA remains strong. For the week ending July 7, good and excellent crop conditions for the 18 reporting states came in at 57 percent, down 18 percent from last crop year. Since 1986, this year’s good and excellent crop condition ratings through July 7 ranked the fifth lowest, on par with the crop year of 2005. The extreme heat over large sections of Iowa and the eastern Corn Belt point toward further deterioration in the ratings over the next few weeks. Many areas need rain. The late-planted crop in the eastern regions of the U.S. may come under stress before pollination. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio each show good and excellent ratings below forty percent as of July 7. If the precipitation forecast for many areas of the eastern Corn Belt does not materialize from the current system moving through Louisiana, the temperature projections above 90 degrees over the next week may do lasting damage to yield potential.

Few market observers seem to believe the 91.7 million acres of corn reported in the June Acreage report. The uncertainty associated with total acreage may linger for a while. The acreage levels reported in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio appear elevated. Illinois reported 11 million acres of corn planted this year, which equates to last year’s acreage. Based on the delayed planting and potential for increased prevent plant acres, this seems optimistic. Indiana reported corn acreage up over last year as well. Many analysts see corn acreage in the 86 to 88 million-acre range for 2019. Corn acreage near 85 million acres may be closer to the truth, but remains dependent on the quantity of corn actually planted in June. The potential for substantial levels of failed acres also places harvested acres under question. If one assumes the 2.34 billion bushel carryout for 2018–2019 and the USDA’s 166 bushels per acre yield projection remain correct, harvested acreage of 76.7 million acres yields a supply of 15.1 billion bushels at current import projections. A 2019 supply at this level comes in 1.4 billion bushels below last year’s total, on par with the 1.57 billion bushel drop from 2011 to 2012. If corn yields deteriorate, the prospect of rationing appears stronger for the 2019–20 marketing year.

Strong basis levels in the eastern Corn Belt point toward either a poor crop, lower acreage, or a combination of both factors. The uncertainty on supply for this year’s corn crop looks to buoy prices over the near term with a weather premium moving into place. A confirmation of poor corn yields and lower acreage sets up the conditions for bullish price scenarios in the 2019–20 marketing year.

July 19, 2019 - Ag Notes

Flavor Profiles, the College of ACES, and Anheuser Busch

Anheuser Busch, most food companies for that matter, use flavor profiles to keep thße tastes of their products inline. It is a very subjective thing, but one that is extraordinarily important to brands and that the University of Illinois agricultural college helps trains students to understand.

July 03, 2019 - Ag Notes

2019 Northern Illinois Crop and Prevent Plant Budgets in July

by Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois
link to farmdocDaily article

Overall, projections suggest low returns for corn, soybeans, and prevent plant acres in Northern Illinois, an area that has been hard hit with wet weather, delayed planting, and prevent planting. Corn and soybean returns are projected to be lower than any year going back to 2000, even after including significant Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments and estimates of crop insurance payments at an 85% coverage level. Corn prevent planting returns are higher than corn returns given current estimates of harvest-time prices, although both results in a loss on average cash rented land. Soybean returns are expected to be better than soybean prevent plant returns, which are very low. As with corn, both soybean scenarios result in a loss on average cash rented land.

Current projections of prices and yields result in negative returns for Northern Illinois, an area that has experienced a large amount of wet weather that has caused delayed and prevented planting. These negative returns are based on a significant-sized MFP payment. There could be some upside, most likely for farmers who have planted. Higher returns than those presented in this paper could result if corn and soybean prices increase significantly from current levels. Still, all of this projections suggest negative incomes for farmers in water-logged areas.

Northern Illinois Budgets

Parts of northern Illinois are among the hardest hit regions of the nation with heavy rainfall, and therefore large amounts of prevent plant acres. In DeKalb County, for example, visual impactions on June 27th suggest many fields still are unplanted and much of the planted corn at V2, a very early vegetative stage of growth. Progress in LaSalle County is even worse. As a result, northern Illinois budgets are depicted in this article (see Table 1).

Revenue in Budgets

Budgets shown in Table 1 are based on purchasing Revenue Protection (RP) crop insurance at an 85% coverage level. As shown later in this article, lower coverage levels will result in lower revenue estimates, particularly for prevent planting acres. A Trend-Adjusted Actual Production History (TA-APH) yield of 205 bushels per acre is used for corn and a 62 TA-APH is used for soybeans. Crop Progress Reports from the National Agricultural Statistical Service suggest that over half of the corn in Illinois was planted in June, and half the soybeans were planted after June 9th. As a result, we assume that some of the planting occurred after the final planting dates (June 5 for corn and June 15 for soybeans), resulting in reductions in crop insurance guarantees from their original levels. We assume an average planting date of June 8 for corn and June 20 for soybeans, resulting in a 3% reduction in the corn crop insurance guarantee and a 5% reduction in the soybean crop insurance guarantee.

Yields are estimated at 165 bushels per acre for corn and 50 bushels per acre for soybeans. Both of these yields will result in RP insurance payments at the 85% coverage level. Given late planting assumptions, crop insurance payments will occur when yields are below 169 bushels per acre for corn (169 = 205 TA-APH x .85 coverage level x (1 – .03 late planting reduction)) and 50 bushels per acre for soybeans (50 = 65 TA-APH x .85 coverage level x (1 – .05 late planting reduction)). At these coverage levels, lower yields will have very little impact on return projections, as higher crop insurance payments will offset lower crop revenue.

Harvest prices used to determine crop insurance payments are $4.50 per bushel for corn and $9.20 per bushel for soybeans, above the current level of the December 2019 Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) corn contract price and the November 2019 CME soybean contract price. Settlement prices of those contracts during October are used to set revenue for crop insurance guarantees. In recent days, both corn and soybean prices have fallen. Using current futures price levels would result in lower returns for corn and soybeans planting.

At this point, the $4.50 estimated harvest price is above the $4.00 projected price for 2019. Higher corn harvest prices will result in higher returns because both crop revenue and crop insurance proceeds will increase with higher harvest prices. The soybean harvest price of $9.20 is below the $9.54 projected price for 2019. Higher harvest prices will increase crop revenue but the difference will be offset by a reduction in crop insurance proceeds. Total returns for soybeans should not be expected to increase until CME soybean futures prices exceed the projected price of $9.54.

A $.30 basis is used for corn and a $.40 basis is used for soybeans, resulting in cash prices at harvest of $4.20 for corn ($4.50 harvest price – .30 basis) and $8.80 for soybeans ($9.20 harvest price – .40 basis). Crop revenue will be based on these cash prices, with pricing assumed at harvest. Many farmers priced grain in the spring. Since prices are now higher than in the spring, those farmers who pre-priced grain, often viewed as a sign of “good marketing”, could have lower returns this year.
Crop revenue from the market is forecast at $693 per corn, equaling the $4.20 cash price times a yield of 165 bushels per acre. Soybean crop revenue from the market is projected at $440 per acre, equaling a 50 bushel per acre yield times an $8.80 per bushel cash soybean price.

USDA has not announced payment rates for the Market Facilitation Program (MFP). Hence, MFP payments must be estimated. Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments are estimated at $50 per acre for corn and soybeans. The same rate is used per acre for corn and soybeans as USDA announced that all MFP-eligible planted crops will receive the same per acre payment. In recent press reports, USDA has suggested that cover crops must be planted to be eligible for MFP payments on prevent planting farmland (The Hagerstorm Report, July 1, 2019). In previous reports, USDA said that a minimal-MFP payment would be received if a cover crop that was harvestable (USDA Press Release, June 10, 2019). A $30 per acre MFP is used in prevent planting return estimates on this article. This estimate recognizes that USDA wishes to encourage cover crop planting, but there may be limits to the size of the MFP payment on prevent planting farmland. The prevent planting MFP could be of the incorrect size relative to the MFP payments for corn and soybeans.

Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) commodity title program payments are built in at $10 per acre. These projections are for the 2019 crop year. As of yet, final details of commodity title choices have not been released by USDA, although sign up for 2019 programs is scheduled to open in September. Estimates in Table 1 are based on choosing ARC at the county level over Price Loss Coverage (PLC). At prices used in forecasts, PLC is not projected to make a payment. Current price and yields estimates suggest that soybeans are likely to have higher ARC payments than corn. ARC payments are the same for all budgets as commodity title payments are made on program acres and not planted acres.

Crop insurance proceeds coincidentally are both $18 per acre, based on the 85% RP policies more fully described above.

The prevent planting payment for corn is $383 per acre (.55 prevent plant payment factor x .85 coverage level x 205 TA-APH yield x $4.00 projected price). The prevent planting payment for soybeans is $302 per acre (.60 prevent planting payment factor x .85 coverage level x 62 TA-APH x $9.54 projected price).

Non-Land Costs

Non-land costs for corn and soybeans come from 2019 Illinois Crop Budgets for northern Illinois with two modifications. Fertilizer costs are lower under the assumption that farmers reduced nitrogen applications. Drying costs for corn have been increased to $50 per acre to reflect likely higher drying needed for late harvesting.

Prevent planting costs for both corn and soybeans are calculated given planting of cover crops ($18 per acre of seed) and one application of pesticides ($15 per acre). Machine hire, machine repair, and fuel are built into budgets to cover these operations. Machinery depreciation is $65 per acre for corn and $56 for soybeans. Machinery deprecation for cover crops is at $45 per acre, lower than that for soybeans. To a large extent, depreciation is a fixed cost. Simply owning the machinery inventory will result in costs. As a result, there is a significant depreciation charge included for prevent planting farmland.

Land Costs

Land costs are included in the budgets at $253 per acre, the average rent projected for northern Illinois farmland. Land costs will vary depending on ownership structure and rental arrangement. Owned land will have financial costs related to property tax (approximately $50 per acre) and interest if mortgaged (about $20 per acre on average). Property tax and interest costs do not include any cash flow requirements related to principal payments on land loans. The cost of share-rent farmland, typically 50% of gross revenue minus 50% of direct cost, will be lower than cash rent in 2019.
Farmer Return

The farmer return is the amount remaining after paying all financial costs and land costs. Estimates in Table 1 are for cash rent farmland at the average cash rent.

The farmer return for corn is -$93 per acre. This net return is the lowest for corn going back to 2000 (see Figure 1). The next lowest return occurred in 2015, when farmer return was -$61 per acre. Corn has had negative farmer returns in 2009 (-$21 per acre), 2014 (-$43 per acre), 2015 (-$52 per acre), 2016 (-$31 per acre), 2017 (-$61 per acre) and 2018 (-$57 per acre). Thus, negative returns in 2018 will be the sixth year of negative returns to corn.

The farmer returns for soybeans is -$93 per acre. Similar to the corn, the soybean net return is the lowest net return of any year going back to 2000. The next lowest return is -$8 per acre in 2002. The negative returns projected for 2019 would be only the third time since 2000 that soybeans have a negative return.

If 2019 projections hold, both corn and soybeans will have negative farmer returns in 2019. This will be the first year in the nineteen-year period that both corn and soybeans have negative returns in the same year (see Figure 1). Furthermore, note that returns estimates include $50 of MFP payments. Without these payments, farmer losses would be over $100 per acre. Increases in MFP payments are possible, but MFP payments would have to exceed $143 per acre before farmer returns for planting crops are positive.

The farmer return to prevent plant corn is -$15 per acre. This prevent plant return is higher than the -$93 return for corn, but still is negative. This example assumed cover crops are planted, making it eligible for a MFP payment, the corn prevent plant return includes an estimated MFP payment of $30 per acre. A higher payment would increase returns, and a lower return would decrease returns

The net return for prevent plant soybeans is -$113 per acre. This is a disastrously low level.

Overall, net return projections point to negative net incomes for Northern Illinois farms in 2019. As covered in the following sections, there is some hope for higher returns in both corn and soybeans.

Difference in Corn Returns from Projections

In Table 1, farmer returns for corn are projected at -$93 per acre. Differences in yields and prices will cause farmers returns to vary from that projection. In Table 2, the -$93 per acre projection for a $4.50 harvest price and a 165 bushel per acre yield is highlighted and in a box. At a 165 bushel per acre yield, positive farmer returns result if the harvest price is over $5.25 per bushel. Given a $.30 basis, the $5.25 harvest price results in a cash price at $4.95. Even at lower yields, a $5.25 harvest price results in positive returns as crop insurance covers the lower yields.

Higher yields could also result in positive farmer returns. For example, positive returns result at a 185 bushel per acre yield if harvest price is above $4.75. At the 205 TA-APH yield, harvest prices need to be at $4.25 per bushel for positive returns.

The following two points summarize the yield and price relationships:

Harvest prices above $5.25 per bushel likely will result in positive farmer returns if RP is purchased at 85% coverage If yields are close to the TA-APH yield, marketing the crop at prices above $4.00 per bushel will result in positive returns The above relationships are based on an estimated $50 per acre MFP payment. A lower MFP payment will cause break-even prices and yields to increase, and vice versa.

Difference in Soybean Returns from Projections

In Table 1, farmer return for soybeans is projected at -$93 per acre. Positive returns for soybeans could result if harvest prices are above $10.40 per bushel (see Table 3). Given a $.40 basis, a $10.40 harvest price would result in cash prices above $10 per bushel. As yields approach the TA-APH (62 bushels per acre) harvest price has to exceed a lower threshold of $10.20 per bushel ($9.80 cash price).

Higher yields will not increase soybean returns at an 85% RP coverage level without price increases. The projected price for soybeans is $9.54. As long as the projected harvest price is below $9.54, increases in prices will increase crop revenue but reduce crop insurance payments, resulting in no change to overall farmer returns.

Similar to corn, the above soybean profitability relationships are based on a $50 per acre MFP payment. Lower MFP payments will result in higher break-even prices, and vice versa.

Difference in Prevent Planting Payments from Projections

Net returns from prevent planting are projected at -$15 per acre for corn and -$113 per acre for soybeans. Changes in prices and yields will not influence the prevent planting returns. Three items on the revenue side could change projections shown in Table 1.

First, the MFP payment could differ from the $30 per acre values shown in Table 1. Again, USDA has not announced these rates, so the values in Table 1 are estimates.

Second, payments related to recently passed ad hoc disaster assistance could increase prevent planting returns. The legislation indicates that payments can be 1) based on the higher of the projected and harvest prices and 2) compensate farmers up to 90% of losses. There is considerable discretion in how USDA implements this legislation and appropriation limits total disaster assistance payments to $3 billion. Not all of the appropriations will be targeted at prevent planting acres. The legislation also covers losses in 2018 and 2019. All of this suggests low per acre payments.

Third, a farmer could sell forages from prevent planting acres. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) relaxed foraging stipulations on prevent plant acres for this year only (see farmdoc daily, June 25, 2019). After September 1, cover crops can be grazed, hayed, or made into baleage and silage, a needed relaxation for requirements given the challenges that dairy and livestock producers will face this year in meeting forage needs. However, only a very small number of grain producers in predominately grain areas like Illinois will be able to sell forages to dairy and livestock producers.

There simply are not livestock producers close enough for most grain farmers to have an economical market for forages produced from cover crops.

Given current estimates, taking prevent planting payments will be a losing financial proposition, particularly for soybeans. On most farms, prevent planting was taken because it was simply impossible to plant crops, or because the prospect of planting results in much lower returns than taking the prevent planting payment.

Impacts of Lower RP Coverage Levels

Many farmers take RP at an 85% coverage level and the returns presented above use RP 85% coverage levels. In 2018, 55% of the corn acres insured in LaSalle County, Illinois were at an RP 85% coverage level (see 2019 Crop Insurance Decision Tool, available for download in the farmdoc website). Still, many farmers have lower coverage levels.

Table 4 shows the impacts of lower coverage levels on farmer returns. For corn, farmer returns decline from -$93 per acre at an 85% coverage level to -$106 per acre at an 80% coverage level. No crop insurance payments occur at 80% and lower coverage levels given the yield and price estimates shown in Table 1 and used in this analysis. Return increases as coverage levels are reduced from 80% (-$106 per acre) to no insurance (-$87 per acre). These returns increase, though still significantly negative, because the insurance premium is declining. Farmer returns for soybeans show the same relationship as crop insurance payments are not occurring at 80% and lower coverage levels.

Coverage level has a more pronounced effect on prevent planting net returns. For corn, the prevent planting net return is reduced from -$15 per acre at an 85% coverage level to a -$128 per acre at a 55% coverage level. Lowering the coverage level reduces the prevent planting payments, thereby resulting in the lower returns.

July 02, 2019 - Ag Notes

June Acreage Report Heightens Uncertainty

by Todd Hubbs, University of Illinois Extension
link to farmdocDaily article and video

On June 28, the USDA released the Acreage and Grain Stocks reports. While the Grain Stocks report provided support for both corn and soybeans, the Acreage report indicated higher than expected corn acres and lower than expected soybean acres. The acreage numbers injected a substantial amount of uncertainty into both markets that appears set to stay in place throughout the summer.

The 2019 June USDA Acreage Report rocked the corn market. University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Todd Hubbs explores those numbers in this interview with ILLINOIS Extension Farm Broadcaster Todd Gleason.

A dramatic drop in principal crop acreage provided one of the many surprises in the Acreage report released on Friday. Driven by much lower soybean and wheat acreage, total principal crop acreage came in at 309.3 million acres, down 6.1 million acres from the March Prospective Planting report. Principal crop acreage estimates decreased by 10.3 million acres from 2018 totals. Significant increases over last year’s acreage occurred in corn (2.57 million acres) and barley acreage (314,000 acres). The vast majority of crops witnessed acreage decreases from last year. Soybean acreage led the way with a 9.2 million acre decrease. Wheat acreage came in down 2.19 million acres.

An extraordinary year for corn production took another unexpected turn on Friday. Corn producers reported they intended to plant 91.7 million acres of corn this year. Corn planted acres came in 1.1 million acres lower than March planting intentions, but well above expectations due to delayed planting. When compared to March planting intentions in major producing states, the June survey revealed higher corn acres in Kentucky (220,000 acres), Kansas (200,000 acres), and Nebraska (300,000 acres). Acreage lower than March intentions in South Dakota (1.2 million acres) and North Dakota (350,000 acres) offset gains seen in other areas of the western Corn Belt. Surprisingly, the major producing states in the eastern Corn Belt saw slight to no changes from the March intentions.

The USDA reported 16.7 percent of the corn acreage (15.3 million acres) remained unplanted as of the survey period and indicated an intention to re-interview 13 of the 18 major corn-producing states in July for the August production report. The prospect of considerable prevented planting acreage in the eastern Corn Belt places the 91.7 million acres reported in the June report in question. The shift out of soybeans and most feed grains may indicate an expansion of the base corn acreage intended for planting in 2019. A lack of clarity about prevented planting acreage reported in the June survey window remains a concern and points toward further downward revisions in the August Crop Production report.

The corn stocks report provided some positive news for corn use. June 1 corn stocks came in at 5.2 billion bushels, nearly 103 million bushels lower than last year and 130 million bushels smaller than the average trade guess. Estimation of total disappearance during the quarter is 3.41 billion bushels. Estimated third quarter feed and residual use come in at 1.13 million bushels. Estimates of feed and residual use during the first three quarters of the marketing year sits at 4.615 billion bushels. To reach the projected 5.3 billion bushels of corn projected for feed and residual this marketing year, feed and residual use in the fourth quarter must equal 685 million bushels. Based on current stocks estimate, it appears feed and residual use this year is on track to hit the current USDA projection.

Soybean producers intended to plant 80 million acres of soybeans. The soybean acreage intentions came in below market expectations. Soybean planted acres fell by 4.6 million acres from the March planting intentions. At the time of the survey in early June, producers indicated that 41.2 percent of the intended soybean acreage (33 million acres) remained unplanted. Soybean acreage came in lower than last year’s totals in every state that reported in the June survey. The most substantial adjustments came in South Dakota (1.25 million acres), North Dakota (1 million acres), Iowa (900,000 acres), and Minnesota (900,000 acres). The substantial drop in soybean acreage may indicate issues with planting, but the large totals left to plant place the soybean acreage estimate in question as well. USDA plans to re-interview 14 of the 18 major soybean-producing states in July.

The June 1 soybean stocks estimate indicated a record 1.79 billion bushels, up 571 million bushels from last year. The stocks estimate came in 71 million bushels below market expectations. To meet the current USDA projection for soybean ending stocks, 720 million bushels of use is necessary for the fourth quarter. Despite the continued uncertainty in trade negotiations and record stocks, June 1 soybean stocks are neutral for soybean prices as soybean consumption maintains a pace to meet USDA projections for the marketing year.

Corn futures prices saw a dramatic drop with the release of the Acreage report. Soybean prices drove higher on the lower supply expected under reduced acreage. Uncertainty regarding corn and soybean acreage looks to continue through the August production report. If the corn acreage total ends up at the reported level in the June Acreage report, the prospect for corn yield moves to the forefront of supply expectations this year. By re-interviewing many major producing states for both corn and soybean acreage, USDA may be signaling revisions to come.

June 18, 2019 - Ag Notes

Managing Prevented-Planting Fields | an interview with Emerson Nafziger

by Emerson Nafziger, Extension Agronomist - University of Illinois
link to The Bulletin post

With a lot of acres of corn and soybeans still unplanted as we move into the second half of June, prevented planting (PP) is unfortunately going to be a major part of the story of the 2019 cropping season in Illinois. Here we’ll look at goals and options for managing acres on which the intended crop—corn or soybean—does not get planted.

Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension Agronomist, on how to manage Prevented Planting acreage this summer.

The main goals of managing PP acres will be: 1) providing a vegetative cover in order to keep the soil in place and to prevent “fallow syndrome”; 2) to prevent or manage weeds so they don’t reseed the field; and 3) to take up nitrogen, including that from any N-containing fertilizer (including DAP/MAP), and any N that will be released from soil organic matter during the growing season. We also need to find ways to keep costs down, given that the PP insurance payments leave little room for adding expenses to these acres. This may not be the best time to invest in expensive cover crop seeding mixes. With high demand this year, such seed—and seed of some less exotic cover crops as well—will be expensive, and some may not be available.

We have not seen “fallow syndrome” very often in Illinois, but there was some in 1994 in fields that were flooded for most of the season in 1993 and did not produce crops or even weeds that year. The symptoms include stunting and purpling that indicate phosphorus deficiency. Plants growing in fields host a type of beneficial fungus (VA mycorrhiza) that assists in the uptake of P; these fungi seem to die off when there aren’t any plants, and they come back slowly the next year. We don’t expect to see this in every field, and it’s more likely to show up where water stood for a long period of time this year. The best prevention is to have plants present sometime during this season to help maintain these fungi. Just about any plant with roots will work, including weeds, but a cover crop species we choose to plant will be preferable to weeds.

Having plants present to take up N is more to keep the N from leaving the field this year than it is to make it available for next year’s crop; it’s not clear how much N captured in crop biomass this season will become available to next year’s crop. But mineralization takes place in every field once soils are aerated, regardless of whether the previous crop was corn or soybean. Grasses with deep roots are the best way extract N from deeper in the soil, and to keep this N out of tile drainage water.

We won’t try to reiterate here the complex rules regarding PP certification, but will only deal with managing these fields to provide cover. It appears that any species will work as cover, as long as the rules regarding what’s done with the cover after the season are followed. That means no harvest of grain (or silage) at all, and harvest by grazing or by making hay only after November 1. Every decision on what to plant should be tested with your crop insurance agent beforehand.

PP corn

Where corn was the intended crop in 2019 and soybean is planned for 2020, using a small grain as a cover crop this summer is an option. Winterhardy cereal rye and wheat won’t form heads until after a period of temperatures in the 30s, so probably not until next spring. They should emerge and provide quick cover, but these are cool-season crops, and when they remain low-growing and don’t send up stems with heads, they likely won’t stay very healthy or grow vigorously through a normal summer season.

Spring oats or spring wheat might do a little better than winterhardy wheat or rye. These tend not to tiller much at high temperature, but they will set seed. It can’t be harvested as grain; check the rules on whether it can simply be left to have the seed shatter out in the fall once it’s ripe. That may reseed the cover crop, but these plants won’t survive the winter. None of these are likely to grow roots as deep as when they grow in cool weather, but they should provide decent cover. With the 2019 oats crop in Illinois planted late and not exactly thriving, it will be difficult to find seed locally. Spring wheat seed will have to come from states north and west of Illinois.

Grain from a bin or an elevator, including from this year’s harvest, might work as seed for small grains, since this is not a “crop” in the usual sense. With wet weather this spring, we anticipate that some harvested grain will have diseased kernels that lower its market price, which may provide an incentive for using it as cover crop seed. Test germination, and if germination is low, increase the seeding rate to plant about at least 15 viable seeds per square foot, using a drill. While drilling will usually produce better stands and require less seed, broadcasting 20–25 live seeds per square foot might work. Shallow tillage with a vertical-tillage implement before or after broadcast seeding will probably improve stands.

Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids and forage sorghum produce a lot of residue and are good at taking up soil N. These species grow well in high temperatures, and they tolerate dry soils. If they won’t be grazed (after November 1), it’s probably better to limit their growth to lower the amount of residue present next spring. Lack of adequate N will limit growth in most fields, and delaying planting until mid-July or so can also help. If there is still a lot of growth, plants can be mowed in September so the residue can start to break down this fall. Some sorghum-sudangrass hybrids are male-sterile, and these species don’t produce much seed in any case. There is no danger of having plants of these species overwinter.

In fields that haven’t had herbicides applied that would prevent their growth, species such as radish, turnip, rapeseed, buckwheat, and forage grasses and legumes could be used on PP corn acres. None of these will be as effective as a well-rooted grass crop at taking up N, and those that grow slowly after emergence will generally not provide good cover early, and they won’t compete with weeds very well. Their seed tends to be expensive, and those with very small seed (such as clovers) can be difficult to establish in mid-summer without specialized equipment.

It may be possible to plant corn on PP corn acres, as long as care is taken not to produce corn grain. Ways to assure this include planting it later than July 15, drilling or planting it in rows no more than 15 inches apart, and planting at least 70,000–80,000 seeds (roughly a bushel) per acre. Lack of N will also help keep seeds from forming or filling, as will very late (September) pollination, which should mean failure of the crop to mature. Some seed companies may offer treated seed that they won’t be keeping over at a price low enough to make this an option. It may also be possible to take seed out of a bin of non-GMO corn grain to use for this. Make sure such seed will germinate, and check to make sure the planter is dropping enough seeds. By the time frost kills them, corn plants should not have formed seed that is mature enough to germinate the next spring. If grain begins to form and seeds begin to fill despite these measures, the corn can be mowed with a stalk chopper to prevent formation of viable seeds.

Soybean PP

Management of PP soybean acres has the same goals as those for PP corn acres, but management changes some if these fields will go back to corn again in 2020. Undisturbed corn stalks have by now broken down to some extent, but they still provide some cover, and keeping some of the stalk material on the soil surface will help preserve moisture and to keep soil in place as a cover crop gets started. The presence of high-C residue from the previous corn crop means that there will be less net mineralization in these acres because some mineralized N will be tied up as microbes break down residues. Even so, good root growth from a cover crop will help to take up N and to keep it from leaving the field.

It is possible to use the growing season that remains in 2019 to produce a leguminous crop that can fix N to supplement the N supply for next year’s corn crop. Such a crop should provide good early growth in order to take up N present as the over crop is getting established. Clovers are small-seeded forage legumes that can work, although seed costs might be high and these species may be incompatible with any herbicides that were applied before planting was prevented. Planting them into corn residue will also be challenging, although no-till drilling may work if seed can be placed well. Broadcasting into corn stalks without tillage is not likely to result in good stands. Red clover is more widely available than more exotic clovers, but supplies of all of these might be limited this year. Sweet clover has larger seed and will grow aggressively once it’s established. It will usually provide more dry matter by spring, and will also be more difficult to control before planting the next crop, compared to other clovers. Hairy vetch also grows vigorously, but its seed is expensive and it may not overwinter very well; this species will work in southern Illinois but is probably not a good choice in central and northern Illinois.

Another legume that can provide fairly rapid cover and that is widely available is soybean. As with corn used as a cover crop, soybean should be planted late, in narrow rows and at a high seeding rate (80 to 90 lb of seed per acre, if germination is at least 80%), to provide fast cover and to keep seed production to a minimum. It is not clear that GMO soybean seed can be used to plant for any purpose except commercial grain production. In cases where treated soybean seed cannot be returned to the dealer, the seed company might be asked if use as cover crop seed this year is allowable. There is no other good use for this seed, and it will probably not remain viable if stored until next year.

Using bin-run non-GMO soybeans as cover crop seed for this should be possible; check with your seed dealer to make sure. Non-GMO soybeans are typically marketed as such, and so are likely to be limited in supply now, unless producers have them in their own bin. Later-maturing varieties would make more vegetative growth and be less likely to set and fill viable seeds than normal-maturing ones, but that would add the expense of finding and transporting such seed. All told, soybeans may not be as obvious a choice as they appear to be at first glance, especially if leftover seed can’t be used for this purpose.

Soybeans used as cover should not be allowed to set and fill viable seed. That’s both to avoid complications from planting a crop following prevented planting of the same crop, and also because the maturing crop may have more residue than desired. Mowing plants off at about stage R5 (beginning seedfill) should work to control growth and prevent seed formation while still allowing capture of some fixed N. A crimper-roller might also work. Soybean plants this size can be difficult to control with herbicides, and mechanical control that leaves the residue on or near the soil surface is probably a better option.

A small grain such as wheat or oats can also be used as a cover for PP soybean acres, although that means foregoing the fixation of nitrogen. These will probably be quite N-deficient when planted into corn stalks, and while this will limit the amount of cover they produce, they should make enough growth to provide fair cover by late fall. If winter wheat or rye is used, they should be terminated in the early spring so they don’t interfere with early growth of the corn crop that follows.

If P and K fertilizers were applied in preparation for this year’s crop that didn’t get planted, their availability for next year’s crop should not be affected as long as the soil stays in place. If MAP or DAP will be applied this fall, a green cover crop present at the time of application should take up some of the N in these P-fertilizer materials, and to preserve it from loss if application is made while soils are still warm. If P and K couldn’t be applied for this year’s crop, PP provides an opportunity to sample soils if needed, and to get these nutrients applied this fall. Late planting will mean late harvest of corn and soybeans this year, which will allow for timely fall work on PP acres.

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