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Six take-home lessons from the 2012 drought

Gene Johnston 12/05/2012 @ 11:02am On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

Wondering what to do after this year's drought? Here are six factors to consider for 2013.

1. Return to rotation

Those farmers who veered away from rotating corn with soybeans may return. The reason? Soybeans wait on rain, while corn withers on dry soil with even a hint of sand. In Brookston, Indiana, John Lehe says 6 inches of rain in August following a nearly rainless June and July helped make a decent soybean crop.

“Corn-on-corn struggled this year,” says Jeff Hartz, marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids. “It is just a more stressful environment than corn-on-soybeans.”

Still, any bump in soybean acres in 2013 will likely be small.

“A lot of farmers don't want to go away from continuous corn,” says Hartz. “There is just too much money to leave on the table.”

2. Don't ignore economics

Economics still favor corn, concurs Sheila Hebenstreit, an agronomist for West Central Co-op in Jefferson, Iowa.

“The drought of 2012 really exposed some of our lighter soils,” she says. “It's not a big amount, but some people say they'll switch some acres to soybeans because they will do better if it stays dry. Some say it will be a last-minute decision, like April 1, about corn or soybeans, depending on the USDA report and weather then.”

Corn-on-corn can take a yield hit compared to corn rotated with soybeans. Overall, there is a 10% average yield penalty across the board for corn-on-corn compared to corn rotated with soybeans, says Bruce Battles, a Syngenta solutions development manager. Still, yield decreases can widely vary.

“We have seen anywhere from a 4- to 5-bushel-per-acre yield hit to a 30- to 40-bushel-per-acre yield hit,” he says.

Top managers often experience no corn-on-corn yield penalty, says Hebenstreit.

“Our good corn-on-corn farmers are very committed to it, and it's profit-driven,” she says. “They really have the know-how to do it well, and they aren't going to switch. Their corn-on-corn yields are as good as corn-on-beans.”

Soybeans have had their production problems, too.

“In heavier soils like in north-central Iowa, soybeans have had a hard time with stagnant yield increases,” says Battles. “Planting corn is a financial decision. If farmers can only raise 50- to 55-bushel-per-acre beans while paying $350 per acre cash rent, they grow corn. Maybe corn- on-corn isn't perfect, but the spreadsheet works out better in those situations.”

3. Expect some dry days 

Art Douglas, professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University, won't predict another drought in 2013, even though all the right conditions are still in place. He says dry soil and early heat last summer could account for about 40% of the drought. This is the share of normal rainfall that is recycled water from surface evaporation.

Going forward, Douglas is mindful of ocean surface temperatures. While the glamour events are El Niños and La Niñas along the Pacific Ocean equator, he now points to those ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic and the eastern Pacific (between the U.S. west coast and Hawaii). The Atlantic event is several degrees warmer than normal, and the Pacific is colder – the coldest in 60 years. These factors point to drought in the U.S. midsection, as they are intact and can overpower a weak El Niño (warm water on the Pacific equator).

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