More 2010 Crop Surprises
I have been in charge of growing field crops on our farm for 30 years – I have learned a few things; however, one aspect that constantly eludes me is predicting crop yields during the growing season. This year confirmed that.
Our 2010 wheat crop was the poorest ever; not in quantity, but in quality. The wheat kernels (berries) were shrivelled up and light – they weighed 49.5 lb/bu (normal is 60 lb. I’d never heard of wheat below 55 lb.) So what does that matter – since we grow it all for ourselves (and our chickens)? Technically, it doesn’t – we still use it to bake bread, etc. But I can’t help but feel that it does not have the vigor and nutrition of more normal/heavier wheat. I decided to buy wheat seed to plant next year’s crop because I feel seed vigor is important; however, the chickens are not complaining and we planted a lot of it for green manure crops.
Another big surprise was our sorghum crop. It is our signature crop: our main cash crop and what we are known for in the area. We put a lot of energy into producing and selling it; a good crop strokes my ego and reassures us that we really are farmers. We began raising sorghum transplants about 15 years ago and since then plant about half of our annual crop (6 acres) with transplants and the rest is direct seeded. Usually, the transplants yield considerably more per acre than the direct seeded and have fewer weeds; consequently, I have often been tempted to transplant all of it.
This year our transplanted acres yielded about 35 gallons syrup per acre and the direct seeded 100 gal/acre. This – in spite of the fact that some of the direct seeded was planted 3 times (due to heavy rains washing away the seed and/or the seed rotting) and so was very late. The transplants also had a hard life: it was unseasonably cold when we planted and so many did not germinate – instead of having 3 transplants every 2 feet, often there was only one. Then some plants died due to incessant rain after transplanting. All in all, it made for a low population in the field – which could have resulted in big vigorous plants but instead the shallow rooted plants (due to constant moisture) were blown over by wind. In contrast, the direct seeded plants were planted much later (usually a disadvantage but this year the weather turned warm and somewhat drier in mid summer – much better for the crops.) The late sorghum grew very well – but it was not mature when we harvested it and so the yield was lower than it could have been.
We grow dried beans for our own consumption. This year we planted black beans, pintos, reds, & tiger eye beans. Heavy rains washed away the seed and/or they rotted. We replanted all again – except red beans because we ran out of seed. The same thing happened again. Now we were out of tiger eye seeds as well. The black beans seemed to fare a little better than the others – so we kept a small portion of that crop and replanted a few pintos and mostly black beans. By now it was very late and the beans continued to struggle with the wet conditions but then finally grew in the summer heat – but they never got very big. I expected a poor yield. We harvested them yesterday: we got about 25 lb of pintos and 120 lb of black beans – much more than I expected.
Back to the unpredictability factor: if I had predicted yields at middle of growing season, I would have been way off – picking random numbers out of a hat would have been as accurate. I remember being amazed last year when an organic farmer I was inspecting showed me how they estimate corn yields: count the number of cobs per foot of row, measuring the size of the cobs, and then multiplying by ?(I can’t remember); apparently, it is fairly accurate.
Me – I suppose part of me enjoys being surprised – I like the mystery in agriculture (& life in general!). But when it comes to crop yield surprises: I admit I enjoy them more when they are abundant – rather than scarce. I had both this year.