2019 Central & South Texas Agronomy Review

Peter Hill, Ph.D. and Adam Owens, M.S

Every year in central and south Texas, nearly 50 Pioneer® sales reps work with growers to plant and harvest over 125 corn and sorghum plots.  All of this takes place in a large region ranging from north of Waco down to the Rio Grande Valley.

In this summary, 2019 performance data of Pioneer® brand corn and sorghum hybrids are highlighted as well as research data on planting populations.  Corn rootworm hybrid performance is also highlighted as 2019 saw extremely high pressure in central Texas.

2019 started with a full soil moisture profile for the entire area.  Late winter rains delayed planting and field work except for a few areas in central Texas which managed to plant “early.”  Central Texas received excess rains throughout the first half of the growing season causing issues with nitrogen loss.  Heat unit accumulation was nearly ideal for the entire area up to the middle part of grain fill – then it turned off hot and dry.  By this time, the yield potential was basically locked in.  Overall, grain quality was some of the best seen in recent years.

Yields were well above normal for some areas in central Texas with others below normal owing to too much rain.  Further south, in the San Antonio area as well as the lower Gulf Coast, yields were outstanding.  Several farmers reported record level yields for both corn and sorghum in these areas. 

Wet years bring out the best in most hybrids but consistency across years and across acres is a challenging concept for the seed industry.  As always, planting a mix of products usually results in the least amount of risk across the farm.

As you study the findings in this summary don’t be afraid to reach out to your local Pioneer or Corteva sales rep with questions or comments.   Now, read on!

CORN – GENETICS

The tale of two years – 2018 and 2019.  Last year was a severe drought for most areas while 2019 was wetter and nearly ideal.  Unfortunately, hybrids that do well during a drought are not always the best when it rains.  Below are the Pioneer® brand hybrids with the most top three finishes for the last two years, ranked in order.

Other hybrids are available but this table shows why planting a mix of hybrids (by agronomics and yield potential as well as maturity) is important for controlling risk across the farm.  Take Pioneer® hybrid P1847VYHR (RM 118), for example.  Brand new in 2018, it was considered “average,” as were most full maturity hybrids.  This was because soil moisture ran out early and nearly all full season hybrids were below average (P2089VYHR a notable exception).  Yet, in 2019 it was one of the strongest performers.  Pioneer hybrid P1395YHR, a perennial favorite, fell down the charts as hybrids with higher top-end yield potential rose to the top.

Summary:  It’s easy to fall in love with the new releases from seed companies.  We always encourage customers to never plant more than 20% of their acreage to new products.  Spread the risk of product failure by mixing up hybrids and consider spreading out maturity to help manage harvest and mitigate timing of environmental stress.  Maturities with various traits are available from 103 CRM to 120 CRM. 

CORN – MEXICAN CORN ROOTWORM

Central Texas is home to a variant of the Western Corn Rootworm, called the Mexican Corn Rootworm (MCRW).  While it is found only in central Texas, it’s behavior is identical to that of the Western.   There is only one generation per year; adults emerge before or during silking, mate and then move down into the soil to lay eggs.  The eggs overwinter, larvae hatch after enough heat has accumulated and then feed on corn roots.  They develop into adults and continue the cycle.  MCRW is mostly an issue with continuous corn rotations. 

Do not confuse this specie with the Southern Corn Rootworm (SCR).  MCRW has one host only – corn.  SCR has over 100 hosts and overwinters as adults, not as larvae or eggs.  SCR can infest corn in any rotation and is best controlled with seed treatments.  Note that corn rootworm traits expressed in the plant HAVE NO EFFECT on SCR.               

Below is a drone image of a test plot near McGregor, TX.  The strips that appear down are lodged due to MCRW root feeding.  The strips that appear normal contain corn rootworm traits.

Summary:  Infestations of MCRW can SIGNIFICANTLY reduce yields and impact fields with as few as three years of continuous corn.  Scout fields before, during and after silking to evaluate adult beetle population.  Treatment thresholds are published and control can be effective.  Traits are not effective on SCR. 

TECHNOLOGY SPOTLIGHT – BLUETOOTH & GRAIN CARTS

Occasionally, a technology comes along that inspires confidence in conducting on-farm research while also serving a practical purpose for the farming operation.  What caught our eye this year was the Libra Cart Bluetooth technology by Agrimatics.  Grain carts are outfitted with unloading sensors and when coupled with Bluetooth allow the operator to see and record weights on smart devise.  For conducting on-farm research, you don’t need to stop and get out of the combine and grain samples can be taken just outside the cab door.

This system is a pragmatic alternative to GPS driven data management systems such as yield monitors coupled with computer programs.  From an on-farm research standpoint, ease of communication and real-time recording of weights make conducting large strip trials much easier to execute.  One feature is the recording of weights when unloading commences – you’ll never miss a weight that you forgot to write down!

(Source:  Agrimatics.com.  Please note, neither Pioneer nor Corteva AgriScience sells or promotes this technology.)

TECHNOLOGY SPOTLIGHT – DRONES

Pioneer maintains one of the largest drone fleets in the US.  Nearly every field and product agronomist uses a drone in day-to-day work during the growing season.  Proprietary software is used for taking stand counts and collaborations with DroneDeploy allowed for in-season plant health assessments.

Using drones in production agriculture complements other tools such as satellite imagery and in-field scouting.  The following are a couple of examples of how Pioneer agronomists used drones. The first is aDroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress using software that allows the grower to see a “live” map soon after flying. The second image shows an 80-acre field where 16 stand counts were taken in less than 20 minutes. Note the color designations that show deviations from what the grower planted.

DroneDeploy image showing degrees of crop stress.
Stand count for a large field, completed in less than 20 minutes.

PLACING HYBRIDS – RIGHT PRODUCT, RIGHT ACRE

In the seed business, rarely can you find one hybrid that does it all – performing best in drought; when it rains; and on every soil type.  Over 100 plots are planted every year in central and south Texas.  This helps Pioneer professionals to better understand product behavior and how to position them on your farm.  Here are the key factors that affect product performance and are key to understanding what might work on your ground:

  • Historic yield level
    • Dryland sub 80 bu/A
    • Dryland 80-100 bu/A
    • Dryland 100-140 bu/A
    • Irrigated
    • Other
  • Soil texture/drainage/terraces
  • Crop management
    • Fertility
    • Population/Row Spacing
    • Fungicide
    • Tillage
    • Crop rotation

While certain hybrids are widely adapted, most are not.  There are some that don’t like “wet feet.”  There are some that can’t tolerate foliar disease or high winds (brittle/green snap).  In fact, as noted in earlier sections, some don’t perform well when planted at high populations.  Make sure your Pioneer rep understands the “lay of your land” and reference the category chart that follows.

Get it Right

I’m about to head out the door into one of the busiest times of the growing season for the agronomist – planting. The soil temperature is rising, the sandhill cranes are migrating north and the calendar says it times to go. For the farmers and supporting personnel, it’s always the highest pressure time of the year – the need to get over the acres as quickly as possible with as few mistakes as possible.

Generally speaking, there’s an ideal planting date. It’s around January 15th in the Rio Grande Valley; February 15th around Corpus Christi; March 1st around Waco, an so on to the north. Research shows that “early” plantings are usually associated with the highest yields. However, there’s risk associated with pushing the envelope and planting too early. Remember that thing called the last frost/freeze date for you area? About the time you get comfortable with warmer than normal winters, you’re quickly reminded that you’re not really in control when it freezes and kills all the emerged corn a day before this date.

Replanting can be expensive but it’s often times minimal compared to the lost yield associated with “late” planting. I get it. This lower yield potential is why growers often accept the risk associated with early planting dates. (And it surely helps when seed companies offer up generous replant support!). Ultimately you have to decide what level of risk you’re willing to accept for your operation. It’s often a conflict between the calendar date and soil moisture available for planting. That’s right, the decision is not easy and to wait is one of the hardest things for a grower to do!

Needless to say, we have one chance to get this right. Yes, once. It’s one thing to look at your garden and say, “I don’t like the way the pepper plants are looking. Let’s pull them and start over.” It’s an entirely different thing to pull up 2,000 acres, each filled with 24,000 plants and just start over. Rarely does the replanted crop yield up to expectations. So remember – you, your family, your neighbors and your landlords will have to look at this crop for the remainder of the year.

So be patient. Let the soil warm up. Let it dry out properly. Avoid the temptation to till when it’s a little too wet. Make sure the planter is ready, seed is in the barn, starter fertilizer tanks are full, and more importantly, make sure you have the mindset of getting it right.

I want you to do well. God, bless our farmers! ~PH

Against the Grain

Woodworking has many parallels to life. Chief among them is “going against the grain.” As a woodworker, going against the grain makes my life much harder. If I rub my hand against the grain of a board to test the finish, I’ll likely get splinters. If I try to hand plane against the grain, I get tear out and it’s much harder to push the plane through the wood. Blades dull quicker and then I have to spend time sharpening. Frankly, it’s not a productive practice.

To avoid these issues woodworkers analyze the grain to check which direction it “travels through the board.” (In the picture, I’m making a leg for a sawhorse. I’m running the hand plane from the end where it’s sitting to the end closest to the camera. If I were to turn the piece end for end, I would then be planing against the grain.) If we read the grain correctly, working with the tool goes so much easier requiring less energy. As a result, it doesn’t seem like work; rather, it’s a joy that we’re not having to fight the wood and can look forward to the next piece.

Going against the grain in the professional world is equally difficult. It’s rarely rewarded and an awful lot of energy is expended explaining the attitude and approach behind it. I tend to find that folks with this tendency often times have great ideas but are stubborn and impatient in wanting quick results. They won’t take the time to articulate a desired outcome or process and can get angry when the results are “splinters” or “dull blades.”

Am I suggesting you always go with the grain and be like everyone else? Absolutely not. Rather, take the time to share your ideas and vision for success. Trust my 20+ years in the business on this. Fewer headaches, less angst and more productivity will be your reward.

I want you to do well. ~PH

I Nailed It!

You may know that I enjoy woodworking. I’ve been taking some time to learn more about traditional ways including joinery and hardware that was used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries (and likely earlier except records or publications from that time are hard to find). Excitedly so, I have found several books, magazines and “YouTubers” that practice these techniques and provide excellent information about them.

One of my favorite ways of joining boards is using cut nails (one style pictured below). They certainly are old fashioned but I’m here to tell you that if you ever have to pull an errant or bent one out – be prepared. These nails have significantly more holding strength than today’s wire nails. And with their wedge shape you almost always have to drill a pilot hole and watch the nail’s orientation to avoid splitting the wood when joining near the edges of boards. Wrought iron and rosehead are styles that are very attractive in the finished product.

You can find cut nails in places like eBay and Etsy but they can be expensive depending on the type. Tremont Nails (tremontnail.com) up in Massachusetts is the of the oldest existing manufacturers of cut nails and still uses some of the original equipment to produce them. So if you’re making heirloom boxes, crates, desks, bookcases, etc. and want that “antique” look, give cut nails a try. And yes, you can still use glue!

One of the techniques described in various placees is “clinching” which is not new to anybody but can be very effective in holding two pieces of wood together. What’s most commonly seen – that of driving the nail through two boards and then simply hammering the excess flat to the underside is not really correct. Sure it works but it could be even more effective. There’s an extra step that’s almost never used today – that of hammering the end to an angle before hammering it back into the underside. (You might ask, “do I ever use screws instead of nails?” Sure, pocket hole joinery that uses screws is as old as the hills and I use them in places that are hidden.)

Finally, I’m enjoying a book, “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” that was originally published in 1839. It’s in current production by Lost Art Press (in Kentucky) but has a wonderful chapter on the history of nails. Growing up in Indiana farm country I would often be asked to fetch a 6- or 8-penny nail but never gave it any thought as why “penny” was used to describe a nail nor what the relationship was to length. This book put it all together for me and below is a copy of the page that’s most informative.

So that’s it on nails and nailing. Frankly, I think I nailed it.

I want y’all to do well. ~PH

The Farmer’s DNA

Human nature is fascinating. I live in an area where it’s very warm most of the year and the growing season is over 300 days long. If you live in the great white north (i.e., north of the Mason-Dixon line), you might be envious. If you’re a native of the great white north, likely not. Your winters are cold. You were born and raised in it and that’s just the way it is. From what I can tell, most of you actually thrive in it. And the south is hotter than hell most of the year and the natives never complain – they sweat the year around and hardly wear any clothing. And they love it! I can’t really explain why but I believe it’s a DNA thing.

Farmers are an interesting lot and like all other living forms are driven by their DNA. Farmers born and raised in Iowa just want to grow corn, preferably with John Deere equipment. Farmers in Kansas – wheat and cattle and the occasional acre of sunflowers to support their state motto. Farmers in Oklahoma can’t really grow anything but cattle and oil derricks and the farmers in my part of the world, south Texas, just want to grow cotton.

Cotton. Lots of it. Wall to wall if they could have it their way. It doesn’t matter that it costs 10 times more to produce than any other crop. Nor that hurricanes or tropical storms will likely wipe it out three in ten years. Nor that every pest under the sun will find it and try to devour it. Nor that the bales sit at a cotton gin for months waiting to be ginned and the bank paid. Nor that cotton pickers cost more than my house (that’s saying something – my wife has expensive tastes and her own income, mind you).

I ask, “how about something easier and just as productive like corn or sorghum? Perhaps sunflowers, wheat, sesame or an organic crop of some sort?” Their response – “Hell no, we just want to plant cotton. That’s what we do best. It’s in our DNA.”

I want y’all to do well. God bless our farmers!

The Root of the Matter

Plant roots are amazing. They anchor the plant into the soil and provide the main mechanism for nutrient and water uptake. They can be fibrous in structure, as in corn and sorghum, and they can be a taproot, as in soybean and alfalfa. While we normally focus on the above-ground plant (you have to admit, it’s much easier to evaluate vs. digging and washing), the underground portion – the roots – is really what matters most in realizing your crop’s full yield potential. You can fuss over genetics, fertility levels and subsoil moisture but if the root mass isn’t healthy enough to take advantage of it, then it’s all beside the point. Here are some interesting facts about corn and soybean roots ( courtesy Dr. Sotirios Archontoulis, Iowa State University):

  • You can see up to 2.75″ of root growth per corn leaf with growth between the row being similar to in the row.
  • The average corn leaf number when the roots meet in the row middle (30″ row spacing) is around 6. This is why we discourage row cultivation after this point – you’re physically pruning the roots.
  • No surprise but soil moisture and water table presence are huge factors in root growth.
  • Root growth requires oxygen and will stop growing when soil moisture levels reach around 97% (near saturation).
  • For corn, 65% of the total root mass is found within the top 12″.
  • Bulk density over 1.80 g/cm3 usually inhibits root growth. In context, we can have layers in the field, natural or man made, that are high enough in bulk density to prevent root growth.
  • Excess nitrogen does NOT encourage root growth. Most crops will cease root growth in the presence of excess nutrients. Call them lazy if you want but applying more nitrogen usually only encourages more above-ground growth.
  • Finally, root growth ceases around flowering. That’s it. No more.

Without question, roots matter. Of interesting note, when plants are healthy, the ratio of roots to shoots really doesn’t correlate to yield. That is, more roots doesn’t mean more grain. HOWEVER, anything we do that compromises root mass health can and usually does impact yield.

So as you begin to prepare or even finish preparing fields, evaluate whether the pass you’re about to make is necessary and whether it will negatively impact the soil in such a way as to possibly inhibit root growth. (Compaction is rarely a good thing and you’ll live with it the rest of the season.)

I encourage you to learn more about roots – in the beginning as the plants are becoming established; mid-season and during grain fill. Dig, wash, evaluate. While I cautioned in an earlier blog about “rinse and repeat,” root evaluation is an appropriate excuse for this strategy!

I want you to do well. God bless our farmers!

Wood and Emails

Procrastination can really stymie productivity. I’ve learned this over nearly 30 years of emails. I estimate that I’ve sent, received, replied and deleted the message equivalent of President Trump’s budget request for his wall – a little over 7 billion. (I can neither confirm nor deny that number but it’s impressive on several levels.)

Letting an email message sit when you know it needs to be dealt with is not productive. It can really eat at you as you ignore it for days on end, even while receiving more emails stating the obvious fact that you haven’t dealt with it. Meanwhile, you receive more messages and it snowballs from there. It’s not unusual to see folks’ inboxes containing over 1,000 unread messages. Apparently not ever looking at them eases the pain and reduces the suffering.

So what does this have to do with wood? Everything. As woodworkers go through the steps of creating a masterpiece, one of the steps is obviously preparing and cutting the pieces to dimension. BUT, often is the case where we run out of time to do anything else and the pieces sit. For a long time. Like several weeks. You ask, “why does this matter?”

I generally buy long boards at the lumberyard and then mill them down to size (i.e. cutting the pieces to dimension). In doing so, the various stresses within the board are often relieved and the pieces can then “move.” While more an issue when working with long boards and thicker stock that’s cut into thinner pieces, this can be seen as twisting, bowing, cupping or combinations thereof. When this happens, things don’t go together very well. And then all that has to be dealt with requiring time, patience and anger management strategies.

The one piece of advice that I’ve picked up from studying master woodworkers is to NOT let the pieces sit too long before assembling. This means, of course, planning your time accordingly. (Don’t cut all your pieces and then take a three week vacation and certainly don’t let things like the Super Bowl get in the way of progress.)

So what I’m really telling you? Don’t let your emails sit and don’t let your wood sit. Else, your personality will take on a hint of being warped or twisted. Just like mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have go figure out how to get a twisted board in a slot that I cut a month ago. ~PH