National yield estimates are the epitome of averages, especially in a year like this one with devasting drought in one region of the Corn Belt and blissful bounty in others. One number does not tell a universal story.
DTN’s Digital Yield Tour, powered by Gro Intelligence’s yield models, profiled growing conditions in 10 states throughout the week of Aug. 9-13, 2021. It highlighted these regional conditions by pairing Gro’s statewide yield estimates with the views of farmers to paint a vivid picture of the crop’s potential during critical grain-filling stages. (You can find all our reporting on those conditions here.)
Since then, USDA raised its national corn yield estimate to 176.3 bushels per acre (bpa) in its September Crop Production report, which came pretty close to matching Gro Intelligence’s yield estimate published as part of the Digital Yield Tour. USDA also raised its soybean estimate to 50.6 bpa, closer to the tour’s estimate. (You can read more on how the two estimates stacked up a month later here.)
DTN team members followed up with some of the farmers featured in this year’s yield tour during the middle of September to gather their perspectives on how crops are progressing as harvest gets underway.
MINNESOTA: GUARDED OPTIMISM FOR A GOOD HARVEST
Southern Minnesota farmer Mark Nowak said in early August just before DTN’s Digital Yield Tour that his crops needed significant rainfall by the end of the month to preserve good yield potential. He got his wish.
Nowak said several rain events in late August totaling 4.3 inches will help his crops finish strong. He conservatively estimates his corn and soybean yields would be 8 to 12 bpa and 3 to 5 bpa less, respectively, if the precipitation never fell.
“My soybeans are still three weeks away from harvest, and I know they got the benefit of the rains way more than earlier-maturing soybeans,” Nowak told DTN on Sept 14. Though it’s still hard to estimate, he hopes soybeans average in the mid-50s bpa.
As for corn, Nowak said he’s still “hopeful to get a 200-bushel average.” Corn is several weeks away from harvest as well.
Recent USDA and Gro Intelligence yield estimates, for the most part, indicate late-August rains in Minnesota had a positive effect on crops. The September USDA average corn yield estimate for the state is 174 bpa, up 8 bpa from August. The agency bumped up its average soybean yield projection in September to 47 bpa, 4 bpa higher than August.
As of Sept. 14, Gro Intelligence predicts Minnesota’s average soybean yield at 49 bpa, up 0.9 bpa from early August. The company reduced its average corn yield estimate to 177.4 bpa, down 3.4 bpa from early August.
Nowak, while optimistic about his yields, is skeptical of the latest USDA and Gro estimates for Minnesota and his region. In Faribault County where he farms, Gro Intelligence projected an average corn yield of 193.9 bpa as of Sept. 14, up 3.3 bpa from early August. The company also bumped up its soybean yield projection for Faribault County from 55.8 bpa in early August to 58.58 bpa as of Sept. 14.
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Recent soybean pod and corn yield checks led to Nowak’s pessimism.
“Even though we had saving rains for late-maturing soybeans the last eight days of August, it looks like soybean size is smaller,” he said, referring to soybeans he checked by cracking open pods. “You can’t tell that from looking at imagery.”
Nowak continued that corn test weight in his region appears to be below normal. USDA established the standard test weight of a bushel of corn as 56 pounds per bushel based on 15.5% moisture content. Nowak recently tested corn in one of his fields, which was just before black layer, at 51.7 pounds. He’s hopeful it will be 55 pounds at harvest.
“Test weight is yield,” Nowak said. “There’s a lot of corn that has been shutting down during the last two to three weeks, and the test weight probably won’t be up to par.”
You can see how Nowak’s field looked in early August here.
KANSAS: AUGUST RAINS TO THE RESCUE
When the Digital Yield Tour checked in with central Kansas farmer Josh Svaty in early August, things were looking pretty dire. Some of his acres in Ellsworth County had seen fewer than 1.5 inches of rain since June 1, and his soybeans had nothing left in the tank to fill the few pods they had set.
But in the last gasps of August, Mother Nature came through. Starting on Aug. 30, the skies dropped up to 4.5 inches of rain in one week, and Svaty’s soybeans drank it up.
“It saved my bean crop,” he recalled. “My soybeans were going to be the size of BB (bullets). The plants were done; they didn’t set any more pods, but it filled up what was there.”
Before the rains, Svaty suspected his beans would bottom out at 10 bpa; now, he hopes some will hit 20 bpa. The experience has him marveling at improved soybean genetics that have made the humble legume an increasingly good option for the semi-arid plains of Kansas.
“Here is a plant that doesn’t require much input-wise, and while it’s a gamble in a hot, dry environment, it’s a safer bet than it was at any time in the past,” he said.
For more information on how soybeans can make yield so late in the season, see this DTN story: here.
MISSOURI: WHEN A GOOD CROP SLUMPS DOWN TO AVERAGE
For the first time in many years, Kyle Samp believes he is in the midst of harvesting a truly average crop where he farms near Moberly, Missouri. “I think our corn yields won’t be too far off our APH (actual production history),” he concluded. “Usually, we’re way above or way below — it’s kind of rare to have a crop that’s really just average.”
It didn’t start out that way. In early August, when Samp tromped through his fields with DTN’s Digital Yield Tour, his corn looked poised to be a solid crop that would hit a farm-wide average of 175 bpa, far from his 2014 record of 214 bpa, but impressive given the turbulent weather his region saw early in the summer.
But now, as the combine rumbles through those fields, it is uncovering the true cost of those heavy June rainfalls and the nitrogen loss that followed.
“We had two different weeks that month where we got more than 10 inches of rain,” Samp said. “It was right after we sidedressed, and I think, ultimately, we just ran out of nitrogen in the end.” Test weights are stalling out at 53 to 54 pounds, and Samp suspects his farm-wide average will slip closer to 150 bpa.
“If you look at the weather for Missouri — from Kansas City across to the northeast corner of the state, where most of the state’s corn production is — I think what we’re seeing will be fairly common,” he added.
As for soybeans, a mid-August rain saved them from a disaster, and a month ago, Samp was optimistic they could yield in the mid-50s if the weather continued to cooperate.
But the region’s turn toward hot and dry in late August and early September has also relegated them to average, Samp said. “I think the soybeans will be pretty small-sized,” he said. “I don’t think we can even average 50 bpa.”
See Samp’s tour of his fields back in August for DTN here.
IOWA: ADVERSE MID-AUGUST WEATHER TAKES A TOLL ON YIELDS
A dry and hot mid-August and a severe windstorm dashed the hopes of a bin-busting harvest for Lindsay Greiner of Keota, Iowa.
During yield checks at the beginning of August for the DTN Digital Yield Tour, Greiner thought corn would average well over 200 bpa, possibly 240 bpa on corn-after-soybean acres. Average soybean yields exceeding 60 bpa weren’t out of the question either. Timely rains and overall good weather up until that point gave the southeast Iowa farmer optimism for a bountiful end to the growing season.
But the weather wasn’t kind to Greiner after the yield tour crop assessment. About a three-week stretch of no rain and too much heat most likely reduced corn yields by 20 to 30 bpa and a few bushels for soybeans, Greiner said. And yields will likely be cut in half on 200 acres of corn mostly lying flat on land he farms near Sigourney, Iowa, he continued.
“The crop isn’t made until it is in the bin,” Greiner said. “We’ll definitely be collecting insurance (on wind-damaged corn).”
On Sept. 15, Greiner combined 15 acres of continuous corn. It averaged 22% moisture and 200 bpa. “The (undamaged) corn will still be pretty good but won’t hit the numbers we were hoping for in early August.”
Greiner said he expects to start combining corn in earnest next week and soybeans in 10 days (Sept. 25). “I’m hoping soybeans will average 60 (bpa).”
The grain and livestock farmer did note some rain at the tail end of August did help crops, likely enough to stop a steeper yield decline.
As of Sept. 14, Gro Intelligence predicts Iowa’s average corn and soybean yields at 199.4 and 58.7 bpa, respectively. Both are just slightly better than early August estimates by the company.
The September USDA average corn yield estimate for Iowa is 198 bpa, up 5 bpa from August. The agency increased the state’s average soybean yield projection in September to 59 bpa, up 1 bpa from August.
You can see what Greiner’s fields looked like when DTN visited in early August here.
INDIANA: LOOKING AT BEST CROPS WE’VE EVER HAD
Scott Wallis‘ corn harvest is about 30% complete, and those fields are averaging 19 bpa more than their respective records. Many of those field-level records were set in 2017 and 2020, two of his best years for corn yields. But some of the best fields he’s harvested so far — like the two DTN visited with him in late July — were planted in soybeans those years, which he said gives that average a boost.
When DTN visited Wallis, a simple yield formula estimated those two fields at 236 and 208 bpa, but the combine tallied them at 289 bpa and 255 bpa, respectively. That’s more in line with what Wallis expected after this year’s superb growing conditions and his high-management agronomic approach.
“Our ears are no bigger than anybody else’s, but each kernel has packed on a lot more,” he said, adding that a formula that doesn’t account for kernel weight, like the one used in the Digital Yield Tour, misses an important part of the equation. (You can find an in-depth discussion of yield formulas here.)
Some of the hybrids he plants really pack on girth in the last two to four weeks before black layer, and a top agronomist with Beck’s Hybrids told him that each 2/10-inch of circumference adds about 20 bpa. Each additional 1/8-inch kernel depth adds another 20 bpa.
“Weight is just hard to quantify in July,” he said. “The USDA not doing any boots-on-the-ground thing until September is probably smarter than I thought it was.”
Gro Intelligence forecasts corn yields in Gibson County, where Wallis farms, at 195 bpa, but Wallis thinks the county average will be closer to 200 bpa. While there’s lots of variable ground — river bottom, clay hills, white dirt and black dirt — they’re all having a good season. Gro puts the county average at 58 bpa, which Wallis said must include double-crop soybeans. Most full-season beans look to yield much better.
He’s just getting started on some soybeans, but he cut 150 acres that DTN visited in July that averaged 95 bushels per acre. One of those four fields hit 99 bpa before, and while Wallis said he’s a little disappointed it the average didn’t hit the century mark, it still looks to be the best crop he’s ever had.
“It’s hard when your backyard looks really, really good or really, really bad to get your mind wrapped around the nation,” he said, but he thinks USDA will probably end up with a 15-billion-bushel corn production estimate. “In a 50-mile radius of here, it doesn’t matter whether you’re high-management, mid-management or low-management agronomically, you have the best crops you’ve ever had. It’s just a different number.”
(You can see what the crops looked like then in this video: here.)
ILLINOIS: BIG EXPECTATIONS LEAD TO A BIG CROP, BUT A LITTLE DISAPPOINTMENT TOO
Matt Bennett says yields on his farm near Winsor, Illinois, are satisfying, especially with where prices are today. He’s cut about 250 acres of corn with yields in the 240-bpa to 270-bpa range. He’s only cut one soybean field, but it averaged 80 bpa.
“It’s just pretty hard to get upset about these yields,” he said. “But in total transparency, I was kind of hoping maybe we would have some 100-bushel beans. I think that might be the case still. It’s possible. Of course, you want to ring that 300-bushel corn bell, and yes, some guys are talking about it.”
He says there have been spots in fields that have hit that mark, but no field has yet made that as an average. Weather in his area has been nearly ideal, with steady rainfall and great temperatures. There was one 4-inch rain last spring followed by cold weather that encouraged some replanting.
“To get that 300-bushel corn, you’ve got to have a lot of rain. And when you have a lot of rain, there are spots in the field, even if you have field tile, that are a little wetter.” From the combine cab, it’s clear that those wet spots ran out of nitrogen. But, overall, he says he’s fortunate. Farmers in other parts of the state, particularly western Illinois, are seeing a lot of late-season disease and diseases due to the wetness that hit yields hard. This year, spraying crops twice appeared to make a big difference in yield.
When DTN visited with Bennett for the Digital Yield Tour, he gave Illinois a 50-50 shot at breaking the state record. USDA still sees that as the case, maintaining its forecast for a statewide 214 bpa corn yield in its September report, but Bennett isn’t so sure. He thinks Gro’s forecast for Illinois, at 205 bpa, is more likely.
“I don’t think that the USDA will trim anything like that in October, but I can see them saying Illinois is only 209 or 210. I can see them moving Iowa up a bushel or two. I think the national yield will have to come down some, maybe a bushel.”
(You can see what Bennett’s fields looked like in late July in this video: here.)
DTN Farm Business Editor Katie Dehlinger, Progressive Farmer Crops Editor Matthew Wilde and DTN Staff Reporter Emily Unglesbee contributed this article.