Friday, May 23, 2014

Looking For A Good Witch Doctor

Weather forecasters get little respect and at times deservedly so.  One frustrated customer earlier today made the comment after another 48 hours of cold and drizzle, that was previously forecasted as warm and sunny, that he would love to have a job where you could be constantly wrong and still get paid.  I know many of you would agree with that sentiment.  Forecasting weather in these parts is a fool's pastime.
Rather than get all depressed about the work that still needs to be done with June 1 looming a week away and worry over the potential pitfalls of wet soils, poor seedbeds,weed escapes, fertility and insect alerts I believe it is time to keep the mood light.  I have been reading a book entitled Under A Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown.  It is the true story of a firestorm that destroyed the town of Hinckley Minnesota in 1894.
This story itself is not one that would lighten your mood, but the description of weather forecasting in the 1890's seems appropriate to share in this space.  According to the author during the last decades of the 19th century meteorology was very much in its infancy as a science and practitioners were often ridiculed as alchemists and witch doctors.  The National Weather Service was created in late 1870 and initially did no more than publish maps of past weather.  Early forecasts were based on proverbs and folklore.

1. A red sun has water in its eye. (I was taught that red sky at night was a sailors delight)
2.When the walls are unusually damp, expect rain. (This makes good sense)
3. Hark! I hear the asses bray.  We shall have some rain today.  (Never owned an ass, so no comment)
4. The further the sight, the nearer the rain. (I have no idea what this means)
5. Clear moon, frost soon. (Yep that can happen)
6. When deer are in grey coat in October, expect a severe winter.  (I don't recall seeing grey deer last fall)
7. Anvil shaped clouds are likely to be followed by a gale of wind.  (And a chance of hail!!)
8. If rain falls during an east wind, it will continue for a full day.  (Sometimes)
9. A yellow sky at sunset presages wind.  A pale yellow sky at sunset presages rain.  (How do you tell the difference between a yellow and a pale yellow sky?)
10. Much noise made by rats and nice indicate rain. (My personal favourite)

Eveyone raised on a farm before the internet age can rhyme off many other proverbs rural folk used to predict the weather.
My prediction is planting weather is coming.  Work safe.  In the meantime, has anyone ever met an unemployed weather forecaster?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Well Oliver, Now What Do We Do?

Cathy sometimes says this to me when things do not go according to plan.  The 2014 planting season is an example of a plan not going as anticipated. 
The crop input industry obsesses over percent planting progress.  How much corn is planted is the question often asked with breathless anticipation, as if the whole world turns on the answer.  To those of us that have to plant the stuff, the answer to this question in my opinion falls into the gossip category.  Nice to know, but not very meaningful.  I would not base any conclusions on the relative planting progress of any crop. 
Locally, a few of my customers are done planting corn.  Many others have barely started or not started at all.  The decisions that each have to make going forward are totally different based on their individual situation. 
The purpose of this post is to focus on the unplanted corn acres.  Seed is sitting in the shed and the foremost question now is whether to switch that full season corn for an earlier hybrid.  Fear of the unknown is a powerful force.  In this case it is fear of the upcoming growing season.  What can happen that will make it worse?  Knowledge and wisdom help to mitigate the fear.
The generally accepted wisdom for the 28-3000 heat unit area we operate in is that you should not switch adapted maturities until May 25, and then only drop by 100 HU.  I tend to support this recommendation, but it is always good to challenge your own assumptions.
To look at this recommendation another way I pulled the data from the 2011 Ontario Corn Committee trial planted at Exeter on June 6. 
This location's 5 year HU average rating is 3052 HU.  The  trial was planted on June 6 in 2011, accumulating 2739 HU through to maturity and harvested on November 3.  If the plot had been planted on May 1 the HU accumulation in 2011 would have been 3334.  The June 6 planted corn missed 595 HU thanks to the late planting date caused by wet field conditions.
For the purpose of this analysis I broke the plot into 4 maturity groups.

Group 1  2700 - 2900 HU (15 hybrids)
Group 2  2900 - 3000 HU (23 hybrids)
Group 3  3000 - 3050 HU (20 hybrids)
Group 4  3050 - 3150 HU (20 hybrids)

If I asked 100 agronomists which group was the highest yielding and most economical to plant on June 6, what would you expect them to predict?  What would you predict yourself? 
On face value one would think that earlier hybrids would have an advantage if there was only 2739 HU available for crop development. 
Here are the results from 2011.

Group 1     172.0 bu @ 27.6%
Group 2     179.7 bu @ 29.1%  
Group 3     191.9 bu @ 31.6%
Group 4     198.0 bu @ 33.7%

Would you trade an extra 26 bu /acre for 6.1 points of extra moisture?  My math tells me that is worth an extra $91 per acre (26 x $4.50 per bushel, less additional drying cost calculated at 198 bu x 13 cents).
If we took this data completely to heart we should be trading in our 3000 HU hybrids for 3100 HU, but that would be foolish.  Most of us can't stand harvesting and drying 34 % corn for very long, so let's agree to toss out group 4. 
Group 3 delivered an extra 19.9 bu for 4 points of extra moisture, which adds up to an extra $73 per acre over Group 1. 
How can this happen?  Why would 3000 HU hybrids reach maturity AND carry extra yield with only 2739 HU to work with?  This has to be a fluke. 
It is not a fluke.  Pioneer has looked at this many times trying to help growers make the best decisions when facing less than perfect planting date conditions.  They have planted hybrids on May 1, then planted the same hybrids on May 31 and compared the development of each planting date through silking to final maturity.  What the data proves is corn hybrids adjust for late planting dates.  They adjust by speeding up the vegetative growth stage and start to tassel quicker than you would expect them to based on heat accumulation.  The heat missed in May has a very small effect on their development.  I use the soybean plant as an analogy when explaining this concept.  Soybeans are day length sensitive, which means shorter the shortening sunshine hours in July trigger flowering.  The corn plant appears to behave the same way when planted late. 
To complicate matters my horticulturalist expert Cathy, keeps telling me that her flowers and fruit trees are two weeks behind normal. 

This is a picture of our apple trees with no sign of blossom.  Normally they blossom around the end of April.  Is there that much more season to come?  Don't know for sure, never will.  However I am willing to bet a full summer still lays ahead.
Nature is truly fascinating.