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What 2022’s Heat Wave Will Mean for Late-Season Planning

Let’s just say… it was a scorcher. 

The summer of 2022 dealt with pervasive and persistent heat – especially in July and August – a critical period for crop growth. 

Even as the calendar flipped to September, parts of the country, including California, continue to break heat records. That leaves many wondering how crop production will fare this season and what can be done to mitigate crop stress next year.

Set harvest expectations now

We know environmental stress, including intense heat and lack of moisture, likely affected crop growth and development in many areas this year. A late planting start pushed row crop pollination into the hottest part of the summer in some areas. Pollen viability is reduced when temperatures exceed 90 degrees for several days during peak pollination. That limits pollination efficiency and, coupled with drought and heat stress, can translate to yield losses of up to 9% per day in corn, according to Purdue University.   

Based on conditions as of September 1, the USDA forecasts a nationwide average 172.5 bushels per acre corn yield, down 4.5 bushels from last year. Soybean yields are expected to average 50.5 bushels per acre, down 0.9 bushels from 2021. 

These numbers may seem acceptable considering the conditions; however, field scouts on the Pro Farmer Crop Tour conducted across the Western and Eastern Corn Belts in late August forecasted lower yields than the USDA’s August report. In states hardest hit by dry, hot weather, including South Dakota and Nebraska, the tour’s yield estimates were down by up to 14% compared to last year. Crop scouts noted aborted kernels and tip-backed ears in corn, likely a result of heat stress during pollination, which will reduce yield potential.

The Washington Post reports that yield losses from the heat wave aren’t limited to corn and soybeans. Specialty crops in California have suffered from an ongoing drought, coupled with heat stress, limiting production. Farmers are faced with tough decisions and may be forced to abandon strawberry, lettuce and tomato crops to focus on more profitable, permanent crops, such as almonds, grapes and olives. The Texas Farm Bureau estimates that nearly 70% of the state’s cotton crop could be abandoned by the end of the season due to poor productivity related to drought and heat.

While crop conditions will vary depending on geography, now is an excellent time to set expectations with your farmers. 

Talk about how environmental conditions affected crop production in your area. Scout fields with your customers ahead of harvest to assess crop condition. It can even be helpful to map out approximate pollination timing and compare that to weather conditions to explain the issues you see in the field, including poor seed set and grain quality. Reflect on in-season management and identify ways to help mitigate stress moving forward.

Fertility planning after a dry, hot summer

Planning fertility after a drought can be tricky, especially in corn. When heat and lack of moisture limit yield potential, the crop may not take up as many applied nutrients from the soil. That leaves residual available for the following year’s crop. 

Iowa State University offers a couple of methods for estimating nitrogen carryover from one season to the next, which can help inform fertility recommendations for 2023. The simplest tactic involves taking the total N applied for the 2022 corn crop and subtracting the 2022 grain yield in bushels per acre. Assume 50 percent of that amount will remain available to the 2023 crop with average or below normal precipitation leading up to planting. 

Here’s an example: 

If the 2022 corn crop yield was 120 bushels per acre and 190 lb N/ac was applied, the unused N heading into 2023 would be 190 minus 120, or 70 lb N/acre. 70 lb N/ac times 50 percent reduces the 2023 nitrogen recommendation rate by 35 lb N/acre. This is a general guideline, and actual recommendations should reflect soil type, the amount of moisture received and yield goals. An early spring soil sample can help guide recommendations.

Improve stress tolerance next season

If one thing is sure in farming, it’s that there will always be uncertainty. If your farmers are feeling discouraged after harvest this season, remind them to focus on the things they can control to increase a crop’s stress tolerance.

Amp up the fertility program: Like us, crops need proper nutrition to thrive, especially in stressful conditions. Ensure your farmers aren’t skimping on crop nutrition and that applied nutrient rates are adequate to meet yield goals. Introduce them to the latest biological products that can help increase nutrient uptake and use efficiency, and always recommend a nitrogen stabilizer for fall applications.

Aim for earlier planting: One way to avoid excessive heat at pollination time is to plant crops earlier. Encourage your farmers to plant as early as possible, as long as field conditions are favorable for even emergence. With a trend toward earlier planting, it’s also important to recommend an effective seed treatment to protect plants against early-season stresses, including cool soils, insects and diseases.

Choose resilient seed: Seed selection plays a critical role in success at the end of the season. If drought and heat are a common threat to yield potential in your area, help farmers choose varieties that are more tolerant to those stresses.

Take advantage of an early harvest

If warm, dry conditions persist into early fall, some areas could have an early harvest. Make sure your farmers take advantage of the extra time to prep fields for next season. That means making fall burndown herbicide applications, completing tillage work and applying postharvest fertilizers. Prep your team and stock inventory so you’re ready to hit fields as your customers wrap up harvest and move into postharvest activities.  

If soil conditions remain warm, consider early nitrogen or manure application risks. The soil bacteria that convert ammonium to nitrate will be more active in warm soils, making nitrogen loss more likely. A general rule is to wait until soils are 50 degrees and declining before applying nitrogen. 

Even the best crop advisors like you don’t know if cold, wet soils will delay planting or if excessive heat will strike the crop again next season. However, you do know how to set the crop up to tolerate those stresses more effectively. 

Spend time with farmers to evaluate how dry, hot weather impacted their crops this season and make management adjustments to mitigate environmental challenges in 2023.

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