By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff
After a truly brutal 2019 growing season for many of Ohio’s corn and soybean farmers, hopes were high for the growing season in what would surely be a more “normal” 2020.
In a year that has proven anything but “normal” the weather has been somewhat more cooperative than the excessive moisture of 2019, though there still have been challenges. Lack of rain proved to be the determining yield factor for many Ohio fields in 2020. Even neighboring fields with just a few tenths more rainfall saw noticeable yield differences in the haves and have nots of 2020. Soil types also clearly showed up on yield maps this fall based on the specifics of their water holding capacity. In general, northern Ohio saw dryer conditions from the start with the unusual situation where northern farmers were finishing up planting and harvest before farmers in the southern part of the state.
Where rains have been more plentiful in Ohio, yields have responded favorably, but many corn fields have been slow to dry down, further slowing harvest. Heading into November, corn and soybean harvest progress was lagging behind the 5-year average, even after some really nice stretches of ideal harvest weather. The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service showed Ohio corn harvest was at 79% compared to the 84% 5-year average in the Nov. 16 report. Soybean harvest was at 93% on Nov. 16 compared to 94% over the last 5 years.
Overall, it would be hard to classify the 2020 growing season as “normal,” but compared to pretty much every other aspect of this incredible year, the weather for Ohio corn and soybean production was not so unusual.
Every spring, Ohio farmers plant between 2.5 and 2.8 million acres of field corn. Looking back at the past planting season, conditions were much more favorable, in general, than they were in 2019.
“2020 was an interesting year for us,” said Alex Lindsey, assistant professor at The Ohio State University in the Department of Horticulture and Crop Science. “We started things almost normal, but there were some wet weeks in May around the state, and then it ended up turning dry on us, and we even had some slow emerging trials at the Northwest Research Station due to the dry soils,” he said.
Once crops were in the ground, the weather moderated across most of Ohio.
“We saw slightly lower than normal temperatures across the state, and we had below normal rainfall in many areas,” Lindsey said. “These weather conditions, paired with some later rains in August and September, tended to extend our growing season longer than we might normally see.”
Conditions during pollination across most of the state were dry but cooler than normal, and in general, most areas had good pollination. Some areas though faced hot, dry conditions during pollination, particularly for the early-planted corn. This showed up in the final yields for some fields.
“Often times pollination is most successful when it occurs in the morning hours when there is dew and the relative humidity is high,” Lindsey said. “Even if there is not a lot of water available in the soil, as long as the air is not too hot and dry, pollination should be successful in those environments.”
As harvest came, some farmers experienced a slower harvest due to wet corn and slower dry down rates.
“When it comes to slower dry down rates in corn, I reviewed the detailed weather data from past years,” Lindsey said. “We had sub-normal temperatures, meaning it was a cooler summer than normal. We also had less rain than in past years. The difference was in the way that the rain was spaced out this year. It seemed to come at just the right times to help spoon feed the crop when it needed it, to help it continue to put on yield longer than we might have expected.”
Ear shank durability was a concern in 2020 as well.
“We have heard about some issues with shank strength and harvestability,” Lindsey said. “Some of that may have resulted from the dry weather in July and August. Drought can sometimes weaken a shank. When we got the late rains and kernels started to fill, that potentially put a lot of strain on an already weakened shank, which could cause issues with harvestability. Some farmers have commented about ears falling off when the combine hit the stalks, and that could be a result of weak shanks.”
Dry weather did hamper yields in some areas of the state. Mike Zeedyk, in Defiance County, faced challenges with dry weather throughout most of the summer.
“Our corn probably averaged about 70% of what it would yield in a normal year,” Zeedyk said. “We just did not get the rainfall we needed on some of the farms.”
Given the dry pattern throughout the summer, Zeedyk is grateful for the yields they did get.
“It was looking pretty rough in August. At harvest, we sawa lot of variability in the crop, even within the same field. I had one pass that I watched the yield monitor have a 190–bushel per acre swing as I went across the field,” Zeedyk said. “Where it was good, it was really good. But where it was bad, it was really bad.”
Brad Haas, from Wood County, also noticed the impact from the dry weather on his corn yields. “Our farm will probably average in the 160s this year,” Haas said. “The different fields rangedanywhere from the 130s to the 190s. The lack of rain did make a difference. This year we had one of our fields that has the potential to be in the 230s that only yielded 162 bushels per acre.”
Each spring, farmers plant roughly 4.8 million acres of soybeans in Ohio. Soybeans also benefitted from a better planting season in 2020 compared to the previous year.
“For 2020, planting was much better than it was in 2019,” said Laura Lindsey, Ohio State University Extension state soybean and small grains specialist. “Many areas had very good planting dates, and our soybean trials, that are conducted in six counties, were planted very timely for the most part. Some parts of the state did struggle with wet weather during planting. Some areas in southern Ohio had fields that were flooded after planting, and parts of eastern Ohio struggled as well, but compared to 2019, planting conditions were much more favorable.
“There were definitely areas of the state that struggled with dry weather after planting. That continued in some areas through August and September. In some places, the soybeans were harvested very early, and I think in those areas they just ran out of water. The yields were not great in those areas either. In areas that did get timely rainfall, we have seen some high yields in the state.”
Stress from disease and insect pressure was low compared to past years, in part due to the dryer weather not favoring disease development. Challenges later in the season resulted during harvest from wet weather in some parts of the state.
“We were able to harvest some of our soybean trials early in October, then we had to take about a two-and-a-half-week break because of the wet weather,” Lindsey said. “Dry weather is good for harvest, but it is important to have moisture for pod fill and seed development. Unfortunately, some areas did not have that this year.”
For Zeedyk in Defiance County, the dry weather definitely had an impact.
“In general, our beans were about 80% of what we would expect in an average year. The fields that received the rain were noticeably better than the ones that did not,” Zeedyk said.
Lindsey agreed that yields in 2020 have been variable.
“We have performance trial data from three of our counties that were harvested in early October,” Lindsey said. “Henry County in the early and late trials averaged 50 to 51 bushels per acre. Preble and Clinton counties averages were in the low 70s. Clinton County had an average yield in the late trial of 78 bushels per acre with the highest yield in Clinton County being 85 bushels per acre. There was definitely variability across the state, and I have heard the same thing from other states as well.”
For Haas in Wood County, the variability was apparent based on geography and rainfall amounts.
“Our best beans were in fields that caught the rains this year, and those yields were in the mid 70s. Our worst field missed most of the rain, and were in the mid 50s,” Haas said. “Our farm average for the year was probably in the mid 60s. We intensively manage our beans with fungicide and foliar micronutrient applications, and some of those fields on the better ground, even without the rains, were in the middle to upper 60s.” Statewide, there were some farm yield records set (especially for soybeans) but as the harvest dust settles, many farms are reporting strong to “normal” yields for field crops this season. And, for 2020, anything approaching normal is certainly noteworthy.