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Midwest Crop Tour Preview
Friday, August 19, 2016 3:23PM CDT

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- Following a USDA report that topped all market expectations for the corn crop, the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour this coming week offers farmers, agronomists, commodity brokers and others a chance to take a look for themselves.

Check with DTN for updates from the tour and posts on social media throughout the week.

Pro Farmer editor Chip Flory, the tour's organizer, said the tour generally draws more attention when the crop estimates are higher. "It's right up there, there is no question about it," Flory said. "There's no question it is going to be a well-attended tour."

USDA's latest crop forecast will give scouts a lot to consider. USDA projects a record corn production at 15.15 billion bushels with a record projected yield of 175.1 bushels per acre. The seven states that make up the various tour routes -- Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota -- account for slightly more than two-thirds of the nation's corn production.

Overall, USDA's Crop Progress report projects more than 70% of the corn in those seven states rates either good or excellent. Ohio might be the one state where crop conditions aren't as good as USDA estimates. Only 52% of Ohio's crop is considered good or in excellent condition.

Todd Hultman, a DTN market analyst, said Ohio and South Dakota have both been dry. "But between there, in the center of the Corn Belt, they should find very good yield and crop conditions," Hultman said.

Hultman noted it may be interesting to see if the tour concurs with USDA's current yield estimate of 163 bushels per acre for Ohio, which is 10 bushels higher than 2015. "So it might be interesting to see if Pro Farmer has any dispute on that," Hultman said.

Hultman added, "Overall, I think the tour is going to say USDA is right and that may calm some of the Twitter pictures about tip-back."

How it Works

The tour has 12 routes in the eastern leg and 10 on the western route. Both legs of the tour are full in terms of scouts with about 110 participating in total this year. Combined, the scouts will sample roughly 1,400 corn fields.

Tour participants will gather Sunday and begin scouting Monday morning. The eastern leg of the tour begins near Columbus, Ohio, while scouts on the western leg of the tour will gather in Sioux Falls, S.D.

On the eastern leg, scouts will fan out from Columbus and move west, ending the day in Fishers, Indiana. They'll continue to push west and north to Bloomington, Illinois, on Tuesday and Iowa City, Iowa, on Wednesday before advancing toward Rochester, Minnesota, on Thursday.

Scouts on the western leg will scout South Dakota and parts of Nebraska on Monday and end the day in Grand Island, Neb. They'll push east to Nebraska City, Neb., on Tuesday and then to Spencer, Iowa, on Wednesday. On Thursday, they'll scout fields in Minnesota before finishing the tour in Rochester.

In its 24th year, Flory said a key to the Pro Farmer tour is the consistency. The goal of the tour is to offer farmers, commodity brokers and analysts an opportunity to see the crop and its conditions in a large swath of the Corn Belt. Scouts run down the same roads ever year, though the number of field measures will vary depending on how much ground a team has to cover that day. "We keep it the same every year. The way we do that is we run the same routes every year," Flory said. "That keeps us in the same area so we've got consistency every year. But it allows us to keep it random by not pre-selecting those fields while we're out there."

Flory said there are often misconceptions about how the tour operates and the methodology used in the field. "It seems like every year when we get started, we have to get in contact with certain groups and say 'No, that's not how we do it,' and try to clarify things and make sure they understand we do it the same way, year after year, so we have that basic comparison that can be revisited," Flory said.

Scouting the Field

On corn, scouts will walk 35 paces into the field past the end rows into a field and hook a 30-foot piece of rope to a stalk, and count all of the ears in two rows. They'll pull the 5th, 8th and 11th ears. Then scouts will measure the grain length of each ear and count the number of kernel rows around. The averages are calculated then divided by the spacing of the rows.

The crop tour doesn't estimate soybean yields because rainfall in August plays such a large role in determining yield. Instead, the tour estimates the number of pods in a 3-foot-by-3-foot square to estimate each field's potential. Scouts count all of the plants in a 3-foot section of a row. They count the number of pods on three random plants and average them to come up with an estimate of the number of pods per plant. Then they put the data into a formula that calculates the number of pods in a 3-foot-by-3-foot square.

Corn yields from the day's scouting are released on a nightly basis. Then the tour numbers are used to help develop the estimate that Pro Farmer releases at the end of the week for the group's projection for the national production and yield.

"Obviously we are using a lot of the data that comes from the tour, but we don't want to represent the opinions of any of the scouts that are on the tour with us," Flory said. "They can all use the data any way they want to come up with their own crop estimates. That's fine. That's what it is for, but we are doing the same thing. It's a Pro Farmer crop estimate, not a crop-tour estimate that comes out on Friday."

Tour History vs. USDA

Based on history from the tour, Flory said the tour typically measures Ohio about three bushels less per acre than USDA. History also shows Indiana might come in 2 bushels under USDA while Illinois is usually measured about 1.5 bushels heavy. Iowa also comes in about 4 bushels light. The big difference, on average, is Minnesota is usually measured on the tour as 11 bushels too heavy. That mainly comes from the fact the tour looks at fields in southern Minnesota where yields are highest, but doesn't go up into northern Minnesota where yields are generally lower, Flory said.

Nebraska also is usually measured 15 bushels too light because samples are pulled from the eastern half of the state. On average, Nebraska corn production is about 60% irrigated and 40% dryland, but the samples in eastern Nebraska often are reversed with about 40% irrigated and 60% dryland.

"That's just because of the part of the state that we travel," Flory said. "That's why we typically measure Nebraska light, but we know that."

Last year, the final Pro Farmer tour estimate for corn came in at 13.32 billion bushels, about 2% below USDA's production figure for the 2015-16 crop. Pro Farmer projected the soybean crop at 3.887 billion bushels last year, or 42 million bushels below USDA's reported 2015-16 soybean production.

Editor's note: Scouting for the tour begins on Monday morning. You can follow the tour's progress by following @ChrisClaytonDTN for eastern leg updates, @PamSmithDTN for western leg updates or the hashtag #pftour16. Please remember that each tweet represents only what's seen on that particular car's route and doesn't necessarily represent the big picture.

Watch DTN Ag News at midday for updates and in the evening when the state average yields are updated.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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