Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

November is the home stretch for corn and soybean harvest. This year, most farmers will finish by Thanksgiving, propelled by great harvest conditions – mild temperatures and sunny days – which are perfect for drying this crop down. Even the late-planted soybeans are coming out of the field in a timely manner. However, the dry conditions that are perfect for harvest are playing havoc with the river water levels that farmers depend on to move crops to export terminals. The map below shows how exceptionally dry the drainage basins are for both the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

Low river levels and the resulting narrow and shallow channels are limiting the number and weight of barges, and some elevators along the river have slowed or stopped deliveries of corn and soybeans. The map below from Rabobank shows the impact of these low river conditions on cash bids. The dark blue areas surrounding river ports are 75 cents under the December cash bid of $6.85. The dark red areas in the southeast chicken, turkey, and hog areas are approaching $1.00 above December futures.  A similar impact can be seen on prices for the chicken areas of Arkansas and beef feedlots in the southern plains with the basis approaching $1.00 over December futures.

The lack of barges going down river will also have an impact on spring fertilizer availability. And we need to keep in mind that the railroad unions are still threatening to strike in mid-November, potentially turning simple fertilizer delays into a hot mess of shortages and price increases.

As farmers complete harvest, many in the corn belt will want to begin anhydrous ammonia applications. The ideal temperature for applications is below 50 degrees F to keep ammonium from being converted to the more soil-mobile nitrate. The warm and dry fall has kept October soil temperatures well above 50 degrees for most of the country east of the Mississippi. Before applying anhydrous, farmers should check a soil temperature mapping tool. I like this one, sponsored by Syngenta, because it covers the whole country, is easy to use, and costs nothing to use.

Are cover crops worth the hassle? Sometimes I wonder, especially on a day like this one as I look over my own poorly germinating cover crops. It’s such a narrow window between taking corn off and getting a cover crop planted, and the dry weather that was perfect for harvest created very dry soil that’s hard on cover crop germination – and on my nerves.

Cover crops can be a pain, but are worth the time, expense, and extra worry. They start improving soil health the first year they’re planted and keep accruing benefits the longer you stay the course. We use a no till drill to plant cover crops on every soybean and corn silage acre. We have a goal of cover crops for all our crop acres but use November 1 as a cutoff date. For our no till corn acres with 100% residue cover it’s about a 50/50 chance that a cover crop will get planted by the November 1 cutoff.  We have experimented with flying cover crop seed on standing corn with mixed results, so using the no till drill by November 1 is our go-to option.

An unexpected benefit of cover crops is that they can help control small seeded broadleaf weeds like pigweed and lambsquarter. The picture below by Dr. Michael Flessner, Virginia Tech’s Weed Specialist, shows clean cover crop plots next to non-cover plots polluted with pigweed.  Yep, cover crops are worth it!