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Crop Conditions Improve Slightly as Disease Nerves Rattle

Jeff Caldwell 09/03/2014 @ 6:58am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Despite expectations ahead of time that corn and soybean conditions might see a slight dip from the previous week, Tuesday's holiday-delayed weekly Crop Progress report showed the opposite: slight improvements in the shape of both crops on a national basis.

Tuesday's report shows 74% of the nation's corn crop is in good or excellent condition, up 1% from the previous week, while soybean conditions were up 2%, with 72% of that crop in the top two condition categories. Both are well ahead of this same point in the growing season a year ago, USDA's report shows.

"For this time of year, these are some of the highest ratings ever. Usually in August and September, ratings drop back as crops run low or run out of water," says Kluis Commodities market analyst and broker Al Kluis. "That is not happening this year."

The developmental pace remains slightly behind normal for both crops; soybean pod-set is right on pace, but the crop is dropping leaves slower than normal at this point. The discrepancy is greater for corn.

"The central Corn Belt has a really good crop. Iowa is rated 76% good/excellent, Illinois is rated 82%, and Missouri is at 84% good/excellent. Corn denting is at 53%; that is 6% below the five-year average, but it is catching up," Kluis says. "The nation’s soybean crop rating improved by 2% and is now rated at 72% good to excellent. Again, the best crops are in the central Corn Belt, and the problem areas are out west and up north."

Tuesday's USDA numbers and the resulting optimism for the crops' development heading into the homestretch isn't without potential drawbacks, though. There's already been a lot of talk of soybean diseases flaring up in spots around the nation's center, while corn concerns have been most pointed regarding drydown. But now there are growing worries about disease in the latter crop in areas where there's been excessive moisture in the last two weeks, specialists say.

"Wet growing conditions promote growth and infection by several pathogens in the soil. Weakened plants can be overtaken by infections that have occurred already or by new infections. Degradation of the inside of stalks weakens them and predisposes plants to lodging. There is nothing that can be done at this point in the season to stop stalk rot diseases as stalks will continue to degrade over time, further weakening them," says University of Nebraska Extension plant pathologist Tamra Jackson-Ziems. "Affected field areas should be scouted to monitor for stalk and ear rot diseases. The first indication of a problem in corn may be rapid changes in plant color as plant processes shut down. Stalk strength can be assessed using the push-or-pinch test by walking a portion of the field and pushing plants at arm's length. Those that don't snap back upright and bend below the ear are prone to lodging. Alternatively, you can squeeze the lower stalks of plants (between the nodes) to determine the relative stalk strength, identifying how many are easily crushed by hand. It is important to test a large enough area of the field to determine a representative sample size. Checking a minimum of 100 plants is probably necessary."

If scouting steps like these reveal you're facing disease, your options are fairly limited at this point. You're best off changing your harvest approach, Jackson-Ziems says.

"Consider harvesting those fields that are heavily impacted by stalk rots first or early to minimize losses after lodging," she adds.

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