It is looking like at least some harvest surprises may be positive after an up-and-down 2017 season in Illinois. The September 1 yield predictions released by the USDA this week are for Illinois corn yield to average 189 bushels per acre, up a bushel from the August 1 estimate. The soybean yield estimate is unchanged at 58 bushels per acre. Both would be outstanding after the tough start to the year and dry weather at times over much of the state.
Many soybean fields in east central Illinois are dropping their leaves, and harvest is getting underway. While we don’t expect as many 80+ bushel yields this year as we had in 2016, pod numbers look better than many had expected after dry weather in August and September. Rain now might boost yields by a little, but only in fields planted late or with late-maturing varieties where plants are still green. Cool temperatures in recent weeks have lowered water use rates, though, and we aren’t seeing the premature leaf drop that sometimes signals an early end to seedfilling due to lack of water.
With high temperatures in the 80s now and expected for the next week or more, the process of shedding leaves and drying down will accelerate, and it will be important to try to harvest soybeans at seed moisture above 10 percent. While some rain would help lawns and still-green crops, it would be better for the pod integrity if it stayed dry until after harvest, especially if temperatures stay high.
With high temperatures, seeds and pods following maturity will dry within hours instead of days, and we need to be alert and ready to harvest as soon as plants can be cut and seed moisture is at 12 or 13 percent. If moisture drops to 10 percent or less during harvest, it might be worth stopping until pods and seeds take on some moisture in the evening or overnight. Breeding and the use of improved combine headers have reduced pod shatter, but seeds less than 10 to 11 percent moisture can crack more easily. This might be one of those years with frequent switching between soybeans and corn harvest.
The corn crop in many fields is also looking a little better than expected as the leaves dry down and ears start to drop. As of September 10, two percent of the state’s corn crop had been harvested, mostly in southern Illinois. Yield reported so far range from low to high, reflecting differences in planting (or replanting) time, ability of soil to hold water for the crop, and whether rain fell or didn’t fall at critical times.
Nearly all of Illinois had below-normal rainfall in August, and little or no rain has fallen over most of Illinois during the first half of September. Dry soils during grainfill can decrease leaf photosynthesis, and when that happens, sugars are pulled out of the stalk into the ear to fill the grain. This leaves the stalks more susceptible to stalk-rotting fungi, and so more subject to lodging. So fields – especially those where leaves dried up earlier than expected – should be checked for stalk strength. Good growing conditions in July can increase the deposition of stalk-strengthening lignin, however, making stalks less likely to break even if sugars are pulled out. So as long as winds stay relatively calm, lodging is not expected to be much of a threat, especially in those parts of the state that received more rainfall in July and August.
Below-normal temperatures in recent weeks – most of central and northern Illinois are now about 150 GDD behind normal since May 1 – have slowed grainfilling rates and delayed maturity of the corn crop. The cooler temperatures have probably been positive for yields, by extending the water supply into mid-September. But the mid-August predictions that early-planted fields would mature by late August or early September didn’t happen. With GDD accumulation rates now above normal, a lot of fields will reach physiological maturity quickly, and grain will start to dry down. High temperatures mean rapid grain moisture loss; we’ve seen moisture loss as high one percent per day under high temperatures, especially if it’s breezy.
Dry conditions over the past month have limited the spread of ear rots. Most kernels now have the bright yellow color we like to see at harvest, and if the grain reaches maturity and can be harvested without an extended period of wet weather, we can expect grain quality to be good. Harvesting at high moisture and drying at high temperatures, or storing grain without proper care, can all compromise quality, however, and can mean getting a lower price for the crop.
One issue that often comes up for discussion during corn harvest is that of corn test weight. If test weight turns out to be lower than the standard of 56 pounds per bushel, many people consider that a sign that something went wrong during grainfill, leaving yield less than it could have been. And, test weights in the high 50s or above are often taken as a sign that kernels filled extraordinarily well, and that yield was maximized. Neither of these is very accurate –high yields often have test weights less than 56 pounds, and grain from lower-yielding fields can have high test weights.
Test weight is bulk density – it measures the weight of grain in 1.24 cubic feet, which is the volume of a bushel. Kernel density is the weight of a kernel divided by its volume, so does not include air like bulk density does. Kernel density is a more useful measure of soundness and quality than is test weight, but is harder to measure. A typical kernel density might be 91 pounds per 1.24 cubic feet of actual kernel volume. So a bushel of corn grain is about 56/91 = 62 percent kernel weight; the other 38 percent of the volume is air. Kernels with higher density tend to produce higher test weights, but only if they fit together without a lot of air space. Popcorn, as an example, has small, high-density kernels that fit together well, and a typical test weight of 65 pounds per bushel.
Hybrid genetics, growing conditions, and grain moisture at which test weight is measured can all affect test weight. If kernels appear to be well-filled, without a shrunken base that can signal that grainfill ended prematurely, it’s likely that they filled to their capacity and that yield was not compromised even if test weight is less than 56 pounds per bushel. For reasons that go back to an earlier time, though, corn needs to have a test weight of at least 54 pounds per bushel in order to be sold as U.S. No. 2 corn, which is the most common market class. Corn with a test weight of 52 or 53 might not be docked in price if it can be blended with higher test weight corn to reach the minimum. That’s much easier to do in a year when test weights are generally good. We expect that 2017 might be such a year.