View From the Cab

By Richard Oswald
DTN Special Correspondent

LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) — An old English proverb states, "Time and tide wait for no man." Forces of nature simply can’t be denied. But winter-like weather across the central and southern U.S. has View From the Cab farmers Karen Johnson of Avoca, Iowa, and Jamie Harris of Madison, Fla., waiting for the tide to turn in favor of spring.

"We got rain today," Karen told DTN late Sunday, "more than we’ve had in weeks and weeks. About 1.2 inches. And we got a little snow. I don’t know that we’ll do anything this week because it’s going to be so cold," she added. Karen has seen planters running in fields closer to Council Bluffs, but none of her neighbors near Avoca have begun planting.

Overnight lows across Iowa this morning ranged from upper teens to upper 20s.

Karen’s husband, Bill, has finished knifing in liquid N. More nitrogen combined with herbicide has been applied to planned no-till cornfields in advance of no-till planting as soon as weather allows.

Winter keeps crashing back, but spring calving moves at nature’s own pace. Karen reports seven new calves on the ground with more to come.

"Surprisingly, grass in the yard and in the ditches has greened up," Karen said. Precipitation helped that. Most of her workload last week consisted of parts runs to town for Bill and keeping an eye on the cows interspersed with the inevitable farmyard spring cleanup of broken tree limbs and baler twine. "I hauled off four loader buckets full of trash. It’s just like any business. You have to keep it neat and nice," she said.

Karen made note of predictions for a 20% fall in farm income this year. But she’s noticed from her farm recordkeeping that prices for crop inputs seem to be holding their own.

Urban dwellers in well-lit cities seldom see the night sky and all it offers. Farmers, on the other hand, have always been sky watchers. Karen had the opportunity to view the planet Mars from the farmstead last week when it rose in the east, until disappearing at sunrise. "I’m always encouraging my grandsons to look at things like that," she said. While clear skies are good for stargazing, they don’t always produce a good crop. That may not be the problem this year, though. Karen has heard climatologists calling for El Nino’s return later this summer. She’s optimistic tides will turn in favor of late-season rain.

Florida may not equal Iowa for corn production, but it certainly surpasses Corn Belt states in planting progress. Jamie told DTN late Monday that his corn planting is near completion. "We got about 250 more acres planted with about 150 left to go," he said. The last of the corn will go in the ground as soon as landlord owners of that field remove cattle inhabitants to greener pastures.

Frost warnings are about 90 miles to the north. "They have corn up, up there," Jamie said. "We have a saying down here, that nothing’s safe until after Easter. Nothing’s growing like it should (because of low temperatures)." Though forecasts don’t call for freezing temperatures on the family farm he works with his father and brother, he sees definite effects on crops like the 40 acres of sweet corn they raise. Already about halfway through its lifecycle, plants are only 8 inches tall. "It’ll be all right," he said, "but the ear set will be low, and the stalks short."

Jamie is no stranger to hurricanes and Gulf moisture. But this should be a drier season when planters run 20 hours a day in March to finish before seed-germinating moisture disappears in April. As it is, he lost four days in the field due to rain last week. Some fields have spring water oozing out of the ground. One concern about later-than-normal corn planting is harvesting. "You don’t want corn harvest to bleed over into peanut harvest," Jamie explained. But with planting conditions this cool and wet, peanut planting may be delayed too. That’s because not only are peanuts intolerant of frost, they require soil temperatures at planting of 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit.

Custom work took up part of Jamie’s week. About 1,000 acres of corn were sprayed for a local dairy, and 30 acres of Bermuda grass were reseeded to bahiagrass for a neighbor. "Bermuda can’t handle the traffic of cows grazing. Bahia handles it better," Jamie told DTN.

Fertilizing can be a full-time job. That’s because sandy Florida soils are subject to leaching. N application to irrigated corn is spoon fed through irrigators. Of course, as all farmers know, the next big breakdown is never far away. "The power steering pump locked up on my work truck Saturday night while I was working on an irrigator," Jamie said. Jamie’s dad, Jimmy, came to the rescue with another truck and work continued.

In spite of breakdowns, a nutrient package was applied to sweet corn, and blueberries got a dose of sulfur and ammonium sulfate. Blueberries prefer low PH soils. Preferably below 5. But Jamie’s soil tests in the upper 5s, and irrigation water is above PH 7. Sulfur helps by dropping PH to more tolerant levels. "We’re always battling that," Jamie said.

Last week on DTN, Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton reported on rail car shortages in parts of the country where grain and fertilizer deliveries are being disrupted by the demands of shale oil production. DTN asked Karen and Jamie if they’ve seen effects of this in their farming operations.

Jamie said most of his inputs come to the farm by truck, like lime rock and phosphorous produced in-state. Others, like imported muriate of potash, are trucked in after being unloaded off ships three hours away in Tampa. He has noticed a surge in price for 10-34-0 pop-up fertilizer, and gas prices have risen sharply lately, but he’s unsure if that’s due to transportation bottlenecks or seasonal demand.

"Fracking oil and natural gas are definitely slowing our access to rail cars," Karen said. That can have an effect on farm profitability. She’s read about problems in other parts of the country where buyers in places like the Pacific Northwest want to levy discounts on grain arriving late. "Some farms are having to ship their production 300 miles by truck," she added.

Jamie’s corn typically goes to feed local livestock and dairies. But he remembers one sea change in rail demand. "We had a corn buyer here who was loading out 60 to 65 cars a day during 2013 harvest. That was a once-in-a-lifetime deal for us here," he said.

Richard Oswald can be reached at Talk@dtn.com

He can be found on Twitter @RRoswald

(AG/BAS)