Harvesting data along with wheat helps plan for next year’s crops

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Farm Forum

NORTH OF ONIDA – Chuck Todd flushed wheat-hued pheasant hens about every pass he made with his John Deere behemoth Tuesday morning, threshing wheat planted last fall that struggled through an unfriendly winter and spring.

He was custom combining for a neighbor, waiting for his own winter wheat to ripen and dry down a little more, here about 45 miles northwest of Pierre.

Todd’s youngest son, Tim, 14, was running a Case tractor pulling the 1,500-bushel grain cart across the field, taking Todd’s “on-the-go” dumps, while his older sons, Michael and Charles, were getting the trucks ready to haul the grain from the field.

Michael and Charles will be together this fall at SDSU, each majoring in an ag-related field, which gives Todd obvious pleasure, seeing the family farming passed on.

“Where I farm, my grandfather homesteaded there about, I suppose, 1890, 1900,” he said, as the John Deere steered itself ala GPS, seemingly far more than 1.2 centuries ahead of the horse-powered harvest of his grandfather. Then it took a day or two and a dozen men and more horses to harvest the 15 acres Todd was gobbling up each hour, able to check the yield moment to moment.

It was running from 28 bushels per acre up to 40 bushels mostly, 50 in spots, well below more typical year’s average of 50 bushels to 60 bushels, he said.

“The winter wheat is not real great,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture found, in its weekly survey, only a third of the state’s crop was rated good or better. It said 2 percent was ranked excellent, 32 percent was pegged as good, while 37 percent was only fair, 22 percent poor and 7 percent very poor.

And the worst of the crop, Todd explained, was gone months ago.

“Most of the winter wheat in Sully/Hughes (counties) was sprayed.”

He was referring to farmers taking a look at the crop as it emerged from a punishing winter/early spring and deciding it wasn’t worth keeping. The crop was killed and a replacement crop – spring wheat, corn, soybeans or sunflowers – was planted.

The state’s farmers told USDA three weeks ago they will harvest only 960,000 acres of winter wheat, only two-thirds of the 1.42 million acres they planted last fall and 11 percent less than they harvested a year ago.

But this field came through good enough, shorter-stalked than usual but still tall enough to hide pheasants until the combine gets a few feet away.

“They’ve already had two hatches,” Todd said, pretty sure his machine would pass over any chicks still cowering in the stubble.

Meanwhile, the threshing yields more than just the wheat piling steadily into the tank behind the cab. The yard-by-yard yield data, fixed in with GPS coordinates, stored, processed, even colored on his monitor inside the cab, will be used later to show the weak and strong spots up and down each lap. “I can use that later to map exactly what I need to do for each area of the field,” he said.

Using the map data and computer-brained tractors, planters and sprayers, he can decide how much, then apply exactly the needed seed, then fertilizer, to each room-sized parcel of the field. It’s far from the broadcast seeding of the state’s pioneers and world’s ancients.

Todd monitors the fuel use – 20 gallons per hour – the wheat’s moisture – 9.7 percent – the yield, and acres-per hour, all from his climate-controlled perch, rarely needing to even touch the steering wheel. But he adjusts the turning reel and the 36-foot-wide platform’s height off the ground to not miss a beard.

“The spring wheat looks good,” Todd said, and soon will be harvest-ready, better than most years when it yields less than winter wheat.

Nearly all of the state’s spring wheat was headed out by Sunday, USDA said, about average crop progress. The survey said 53 percent of the spring wheat was rated good and another 9 percent excellent; 29 percent hit fair, 8 percent poor and 1 percent very poor.

The row crops, still green, look lush across the region.

A full 43 percent of the state’s corn crop was at silk stage by July 19, well ahead of the five-year average of 27 percent. And 62 percent of corn was rated in good condition, 14 percent excellent and 19 percent fair.