For the last eight years, I’ve spent a week each August as a scout on the ProFarmer Midwest Crop Tour. My first year, I was pressed into service by the National Association of Farm Broadcasting as a stringer reporting on each day’s Tour findings. From that first Tour, I requested the assignment annually; the Tour is something of a “working vacation” for me. This week I’m once again out walking corn and soybean fields across the Cornbelt.
The Crop Tour isn’t the only Tour of its kind, but it is certainly the largest and the most well known. Farmers take part in a wheat quality Tour in the plains earlier in the year, and I’m aware of smaller regional Tours in various states looking at the condition and progress of area crops. What makes the ProFarmer Tour unique, however, is its scope and its longevity. For the better part of two decades, crop scouts have walked the fields of the seven states that make up the overwhelming majority of corn and soybean production in the U.S.
The modern Tour traces back to much smaller affairs in the late 1980s. Today’s effort includes two legs, one departing from Columbus, Ohio, and a western edition embarking from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The two groups of scouts meet in Austin, Minnesota, covering Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska along the way. Scouts travel routes that form a spider web configuration across the geography, with a group of three-four scouts taking each of roughly a dozen different routes from one state to the next. Along the way, they’re stopping to scout fields roughly every 15-20 miles.
At each field stop along the way, scouts will gather data from adjacent corn and soybean fields, examining factors that will determine the corn yield and the productive potential of the soybeans. For corn, this means we’re counting the number of ears in a 60-foot section of row, measuring the grain length of three of those ears, as well as the girth in kernel rows of that ear, and multiplying those numbers together in a “rough and dirty” yield calculation. We’ll also gather information about the moisture content of the soil and relative health of the plants in the field.
For soybeans, we’re not able to calculate a yield, per se, perhaps one of the most difficult things to explain to folks who’ve not taken the Tour themselves. With wide variability in maturity between fields, it’s extremely difficult to determine a responsible yield calculation on soybeans in the third week of August. What we do measure is the number of pods per square yard, a figure that will give us some concept year over year of how that field might perform given an adequate finish to the growing season.
While the Tour won’t be complete until after these lines go to press, I have a few observations that bear sharing. First, the corn crop is better than last year. In Ohio in particular, farmers got the crop in the ground earlier than last year, and the stands are by and large excellent. While there are definite and obvious pockets where corn was planted later, and then suffered from dry/hot weather through the pollination period, this crop appears to be much stronger than the 2009 edition.
Secondly, plant population matters. When I first went on the Tour, farmers were very interested in the size of the ears. Big, long ears, eight inches or better, were highly valued over the number of ears in a row. With eight years of scouting under my belt, I can tell you that 120 six-inch ears in 60′ of row will yield a LOT more corn than 85 eight-inch ears in the same row. The more good ears you have in a field, the more corn you can harvest.
Finally, while the soybean crop is much healthier than last year, there’s still along way to go before the crop is in the bin. We’ve walked fields this week still in full bloom. Those plants can still set more pods, meaning more beans. Without a good rain in the next week, however, those beans may not make any additional seeds, meaning fewer bushels.
Our Ohio Tour average, for example, indicated a 5.3 percent reduction in pods per yard from 2009, though I would say that’s mostly due to differences in maturity over last year.
I highly recommend attending this Tour, or one like it. The opportunity to examine a dozen different fields over a four-day period is extremely enlightening. Likewise, the camaraderie with the three-dozen scouts who take the week to walk those fields is hard to discount.