DTN Ag Headlines

By Lori Culler
DTN HR Columnist

When it comes to improving performance and retaining top talent in our competitive landscape, employee engagement needs to be one of your farm's top initiatives.

An engaged employee is 21% more productive than a less-engaged employee and a highly engaged employee is 87% less likely to leave the organization. High levels of energy, commitment and performance from our employees lead to an increased bottom line.

The return on investment (ROI) on improving employee engagement is higher profitability, fewer errors on the farm and more creative problem solving. It's not about ensuring they are happy every day and enjoy every minute of their job; rather, it's about having employees that are deeply committed to the success of your operation.

In March, our Ag's HR Coach column looked at how to manage a team to higher production by asking employees questions to see how engaged they are in the business.

In this second part of the two-part package, we look at five practices you can implement with relatively low cost and investment of time to help keep employees engaged.

EMPLOYEE-LED PROJECTS

Give your employees autonomy to lead projects that will affect the business. This allows employees to grow their knowledge and experience while adding variety in their work from their day-to-day responsibilities. Align an employee's natural talents to useful projects. If you have someone who is very detailed and organized, designate that person to reorganize the shop, adding labeling and shelving as the person sees fit. Or create employee-led safety committees to implement internal training or improvements to comply with safety standards. Have someone create a landlord newsletter or maintain the company Facebook page. There are endless amounts of apps to assist with communication and tracking progress; consider having a team of employees research apps that might be useful for the farm. The extra bonus of employee-led projects is the team is more apt to support what ideas they have developed.

CONTINUOUS LEARNING

Employees are looking to continuously learn and gain knowledge. It benefits the farm when employees have more perspective on what's going on in the industry and what other progressive farms are implementing. Consider sending them to industry seminars, tradeshows and workshops. The value comes when you hold a discussion when they return to find out what they learned, found interesting and what ideas could be applied to the farm. Also consider outside-the-industry training, such as management training, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, or the 5S technique (refers to five steps: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain). This helps employees bring in ideas from other industries that can be applied to the farm.

MANAGEMENT COACHING

A big part of whether employees are engaged or not largely depends on the interaction they have with their direct manager. To retain top talent, managers must be strong leaders and great coaches to drive the best performance. Those skills don't always come naturally to everyone. Get training for your managers, or perhaps even yourself, on how to improve your leadership skills. I've been contacted by farms who want us to hire a manager because, although they have an individual that is great on the farm and execution of work, that person lacks leadership ability. Build your bench strength by training your next level employees below the management level.

BUILD COMRADERY

When a team is connected, the employees' performance can thrive together. Foster good working relationships amongst the team and build an environment where it's okay not to be perfect. Build a culture where everyone's strengths are recognized and flaws are enjoyed. Besides building a cohesive team through day-to-day interactions, treat employees to fun events outside of work, whether you take the team to a ballgame or host a picnic for the families. Celebrate wins and successes along the way, whether it's a new yield record or simply harvest is complete for the year. Celebrate the hard work everyone has put in. Another great way to connect is to have a service project the team could work on together, such as volunteering or perhaps even host for a charity.

TOOLS AND RESOURCES

High performing employees want to have the tools and resources to succeed. Let's say you have implemented a new tracking system in the field, and it has some glitches that continually arise. If we don't work to try to fix the issue for the operator, it ends up being a daily point of frustration. Same thing with having the right equipment to perform employees' jobs and conduct in-the-moment repairs. Ask your employees, after planting season, what tools and resources did they need that would have made their jobs more effective during planting.

Focusing on your employee engagement is an ongoing effort. Continuously check-in with staff and conduct self-evaluations. Answer these questions as a management team to see how you are doing:

-- Does everyone know where we are heading as a company and what matters most to helping us get there?

-- Does everyone know their role; do they have the tools/resources to do their best in that role?

-- What activities have we done to increase the knowledge base of the team?

-- Do employees have a voice and are those voices heard by the management team?

-- Are we maximizing the unique talents of our team members?

-- What's the trust level between management and team?

-- Have I spent time individually with each employee the past four to five months to discuss these things?

When we are talking with candidates about potential jobs, they constantly ask us questions about our client's culture and what is it like to work there. We need top talent for our operations to stay competitive and we can only attract and retain top talent if we have built a culture focused on employee engagement.

**

Editor's Note: To see six questions you can ask employees to get feedback and to gain a sense of each one's engagement in the business, see Lori's March column "Managing a Team is Key to Higher Production" at https://www.dtnpf.com/….

Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (https://aghires.com/…) a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email lori@aghires.com and find other labor management tips under Resources at www.dtnpf.com.

(ES/CZ)

By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) -- The EPA has until July 18 to address objections to its 2007 decision to reject a petition asking the agency to ban chlorpyrifos, as a result of an order issued on Friday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

The order came after a hearing before all of the judges of the Ninth Circuit on March 26, 2019. That hearing was requested by the EPA, after a smaller panel by the court last year ordered the cancellation of all chlorpyrifos registrations.

According to the order handed down on Friday, the agency indicated during oral arguments it could consider and have a decision within 90 days on objections filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.

The EPA denied a petition filed by environmental groups on March 30, 2017, to ban the pesticide outright. The agency said in a statement at the time that farmers need chlorpyrifos, and "sound science" when making decisions.

The LULAC objected to the decision and the agency did not respond to those objections.

The agency's rejection of the 2007 petition was a surprising reversal from the stance of the EPA under the Obama administration, which had indicated as recently as fall 2016 that it was prepared to issue a full ban on the pesticide. The Ninth Circuit last year decided the EPA had been ignoring its own science that showed chlorpyrifos is allegedly a danger to children.

In August 2018, the EPA asked for an "en banc" hearing before all non-recused judges in the Ninth Circuit. En banc hearings are reserved for cases that are particularly complex.

On Aug. 9, 2018, a three-judge panel on the court ordered EPA to cancel all chlorpyrifos registrations in 60 days. The court ruled the agency was not justified in maintaining the insecticide's registration "in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children." Chlorpyrifos' registration was set to end on Oct. 9, 2018.

Chlorpyrifos is the main ingredient in Dow AgroScience's Lorsban insecticide, which targets pests such as soybean aphids, spider mites and corn rootworm.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice argued in EPA's petition that the law requires the court to allow the EPA to reconsider the insecticide's registration.

The petition argued the court's revocation of the registration was in conflict with cancellation requirements laid out in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA.

The legal pursuit began in 2007 when the Pesticide Action Network North America and the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned EPA to cancel chlorpyrifos registrations.

Following the court's August 2018 decision, an EPA spokesman told DTN the decision was based on data that was not accessible to the agency.

A Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health study has been widely used as support for the ban, despite divergent scientific views among EPA scientific review panels, and former President Barack Obama's administration's USDA questioning the study and its data.

A 2016 EPA scientific advisory panel indicated some members of that panel said they had difficulty assessing the study, because the raw data from the study was not made available.

On July 30, 2018, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation released a scientific assessment that concluded that chlorpyrifos should be listed as a toxic air contaminant in the state based on evidence of its neurological effects and exposure risks.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @toddneeleyDTN

(CC\SK)

By Mary Kennedy
DTN Cash Grains Analyst

OMAHA (DTN) -- The domestic distillers dried grains (DDG) average spot price from the 40 locations DTN contacted was down 5 cents at $134 per ton for the week ended April 18, versus the prior week. Spot DDG truck prices were lower as demand has slowed, along with added pressure coming from continued weakness in the corn market.

Based on the average of prices collected by DTN, the value of DDG relative to corn for the week ended April 18 was at 104.66%. The value of DDG relative to soybean meal was at 44.19%. The cost per unit of protein for DDG was $4.96, compared to the cost per unit of protein for soybean meal at $6.38. Soymeal prices have been moving lower most of the week as the soybean futures fell to their lowest price in 2019 at midweek.

The U.S. Census Bureau said Wednesday that U.S. exports of distillers dried grain with solubles (DDGS) totaled 686,005 metric tons (mt) in February, down from 806,615 mt in January and down 18% from a year ago. Mexico was the top destination in February, taking 24% of U.S. exports, followed by the usual list of South Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam. In the first two months of 2019, U.S. exports of DDGS were down 14% from a year ago.

ALL PRICES SUBJECT TO CONFIRMATION CURRENT PREVIOUS CHANGE
COMPANY STATE 4/18/2019 4/11/2019
Bartlett and Company, Kansas City, MO (816-753-6300)
Missouri Dry $140 $145 -$5
Wet $75 $78 -$3
Show Me Ethanol LLC, Carrollton, MO (660-542-6493)
Missouri Subject Dry $135 $145 -$10
Wet $75 $80 -$5
CHS, Minneapolis, MN (800-769-1066)
Illinois Dry $137 $142 -$5
Indiana Dry $135 $140 -$5
Iowa Dry $125 $130 -$5
Michigan Dry $135 $140 -$5
Minnesota Dry $125 $130 -$5
North Dakota Dry $125 $130 -$5
New York Dry $140 $145 -$5
South Dakota Dry $125 $130 -$5
MGP Ingredients, Atchison, KS (800-255-0302 Ext. 5253)
Kansas Dry $130 $145 -$15
POET Nutrition, Sioux Falls, SD (888-327-8799)
Indiana Dry $140 $145 -$5
Iowa Dry $130 $135 -$5
Michigan Dry $130 $130 $0
Minnesota Dry $130 $130 $0
Missouri Dry $150 $150 $0
Ohio Dry $140 $140 $0
South Dakota Dry $140 $140 $0
United BioEnergy, Wichita, KS (316-616-3521)
Kansas Dry $140 $140 $0
Wet $60 $60 $0
Illinois Dry $148 $148 $0
Nebraska Dry $140 $140 $0
Wet $60 $60 $0
U.S. Commodities, Minneapolis, MN (888-293-1640)
Illinois Dry $130 $135 -$5
Indiana Dry $125 $130 -$5
Iowa Dry $125 $130 -$5
Michigan Dry $125 $130 -$5
Minnesota Dry $125 $130 -$5
Nebraska Dry $125 $145 -$20
New York Dry $150 $155 -$5
North Dakota Dry $140 $150 -$10
Ohio Dry $140 $145 -$5
South Dakota Dry $130 $140 -$10
Wisconsin Dry $130 $135 -$5
Valero Energy Corp, San Antonio Texas (210-345-3362) (210-345-3362)
Indiana Dry $140 $140 $0
Iowa Dry $135 $140 -$5
Minnesota Dry $130 $130 $0
Nebraska Dry $135 $150 -$15
Ohio Dry $145 $145 $0
South Dakota Dry $136 $140 -$4
California Dry $190 $195 -$5
Western Milling, Goshen, California (559-302-1074)
California Dry $208 $215 -$7
*Prices listed per ton.
Weekly Average $134 $139 -$5
The weekly average prices above reflect only those companies DTN
collects spot prices from. States include: Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska,
Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan,
Wisconsin and Indiana. Prices for Pennsylvania, New York and
California are not included in the averages.
VALUE OF DDG VS. CORN & SOYBEAN MEAL
Settlement Price: Quote Date Bushel Short Ton
Corn 4/18/2019 $3.5850 $128.04
Soybean Meal 4/18/2019 $303.20
DDG Weekly Average Spot Price $134.00
DDG Value Relative to: 4/18 4/11
Corn 104.66% 108.11%
Soybean Meal 44.19% 45.25%
Cost Per Unit of Protein:
DDG $4.96 $5.15
Soybean Meal $6.38 $6.47
Notes:
Corn and soybean prices take from DTN Market Quotes. DDG price
represents the average spot price from Midwest companies
collected on Thursday afternoons. Soybean meal cost per unit
of protein is cost per ton divided by 47.5. DDG cost per unit
of protein is cost per ton divided by 27.

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn

(BAS/CZ)

By Dan Miller
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

Heath Stolee has embraced the ribbing he gets for the chestnut grove he tends near Radcliffe, Iowa. "We're in corn and soybean country. All the neighbors are giving me a hard time, saying you're kind of nutty," Stolee said. To the 25 acres of Chinese chestnuts planted in astonishingly straight rows, he has bestowed the business name Nutty Farmer Chestnuts (www.facebook.com/NuttyFarmerChestnuts).

Stolee is an Army veteran with tours in Kuwait and Iraq. The 37-year-old works today at the National Centers for Animal Health, in Ames, Iowa, operates a small metal art business and is the commander of his community's American Legion Post 317.

Some of the 800 trees Stolee has planted are now 4 years old and beginning to produce burrs, the spiny coverings housing chestnuts.

"They're trying to reproduce," he said, pulling on a branch with burrs. "Eventually, there will be three chestnuts in each one of those burrs." Stolee's trees are about 10 years from marketable production.

CHESTNUT MARKET

Three chestnut species account for the bulk of global production, according to The Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri (www.centerforagroforestry.org). They are the Chinese chestnut, European chestnut and Japanese chestnut. European and Japanese chestnuts are grown commercially in the Western U.S. Mature Chinese chestnuts are about 40 feet tall and multibranched with a distinctive apple tree shape. The leaf is spade-shaped, thick and waxy with a rounded bottom. The Chinese chestnut is well adapted to the Midwest with cold hardiness to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and a high resistance to the chestnut blight fungus.

That fungus left an ugly scar on the American landscape in the early 1900s. The disease felled in just 40 years more than 4 billion American chestnut trees growing among the hills of the eastern U.S. Those trees, The American Chestnut Foundation (www.acf.org) said, were among the largest, tallest and fastest-growing trees in the United States. The trees grew as far west as Ohio and southern Indiana and down through Kentucky, Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern and central Mississippi.

That ecological disaster destroyed more than the tree. The edible nut was significant in the rural economy. Hogs and cattle grew fat on the nuts they found in chestnut-dominated forests. The nuts had wide human appeal. "Chestnut ripening coincided with the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season, and turn-of-the-century newspaper articles often showed train cars overflowing with chestnuts rolling into major cities to be sold fresh or roasted," said a Chestnut Foundation backgrounder.

NEW OPTION

For Stolee, Chinese chestnuts offer an alternative to corn and soybeans. "I have a small acreage of 100 acres that I rent from my folks," he said. The farm has produced corn and soybeans, and at one time, a small number of purebred Charolais. Stolee's father, Tom, had rented the land to a neighbor prior to Stolee's return from Iraq. He had another vision for that land -- one his dad also thought was a bit nutty.

"Fifty acres of corn and soybeans won't work here because of the capital costs of equipment and improvements," Stolee said. "I'm trying to diversify, to find something different -- a niche market -- and chestnuts seemed to fit my lifestyle pretty well."

Stolee came upon chestnut production largely by accident. He was looking to improve the habitat of some hunting ground near his home. He had already planted oaks and fruit trees there. While visiting a chestnut orchard in southeast Iowa, he asked the owner if deer would browse chestnuts. They would. But, the owner asked why Stolee would feed $5 a pound chestnuts to deer?

Chestnuts have promise of good income deferred 15 years. A healthy, mature tree will produce 8 to 10 pounds of chestnuts, or about 2,000 pounds per acre.

How much a nut is worth is related to its size. Generally, the value of chestnuts ranges from $0.75 to $2.50 per pound wholesale and from $2 to $5 per pound retail, according to USDA's Ag Marketing Resource Center. Chestnuts are primarily sold fresh in the shell.

MARKET VARIETY

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, said producers will find plenty of demand in the marketplace. Opportunities include farmers' markets, specialty grocery stores, wholesale purveyors, processors of prepackaged food, vegetarian food processors, restaurant food purveyors, mail-order businesses, seasonal-food processors and ethnic markets -- popular especially among Middle Eastern and Asian consumers. Agritourism and U-pick farms offer another sales outlet.

The U.S. doesn't have a significant chestnut industry. Surprisingly, the country is a net importer and brought in 3,200 metric tons of chestnuts in 2017, mostly from Italy.

USDA counts 919 farms producing chestnuts on 3,700 acres. The top five states with the most chestnut acreage were California, Florida, Michigan, Oregon and Virginia. U.S. chestnut production is less than 1% of total world production. Consumption could support 20,000 acres of chestnuts.

Chestnuts are sometimes referred to as the "Un-Nut." "They hardly resemble their tree-nut cousins," said the nutrition and recipe publication "Why Chestnuts?" published by The Center for Agroforestry, at the University of Missouri. Unlike pecans and walnuts, chestnuts contain only a trace of fat but have a significant amount of vitamin C.

Stolee plans to sell chestnuts directly off his farm. Growers assure him they regularly sell out their supplies. The chestnut harvest in Iowa is about six weeks, from mid-September to October.

TREE ESTABLISHMENT

It's a mistake to think a new chestnut farmer need only stick trees into the ground and watch them grow. The first two to three years are important for root establishment, Stolee said. Weed and grass control is vital both preplant and as the trees are establishing themselves. And, water. Stolee has installed many feet of drip irrigation lines. The alternative is hauling water. In Iowa's 2017 drought, Stolee hauled water for weeks, 70,000 gallons in all to keep his trees alive.

Location is critical. Chestnut trees do not like wet feet. They grow best in well-drained soils -- sandy, loamy and somewhat acidic. Planting on slopes will help control drainage problems. Full sun exposure is best.

"Once you get them established and growing good, they need nitrogen. The trees are pretty heavy nitrogen feeders. Not as much as corn, but enough," Stolee said. He gives the trees a half-pound of urea 46-0-0 every year.

His wind-pollinated trees are planted in long rows, 40 feet apart with 40 feet between rows. He keeps the grass clear from the trunks. Pruning is important to the future productivity of the tree.

Mowing is a constant chore. In that, he found a godsend: The Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund provides direct assistance to veterans who are in their beginning years of farming or ranching. Awards range from $1,000 to $5,000. Stolee earned a $2,000 grant for the purchase of a 10-foot John Deere rotary mower.

A 2012 Center for Agroforestry report (www.centerforagroforestry.org/pubs/chestnut.pdf) calculated a cost of $3,108 to establish over three years an acre of Chinese chestnuts in Missouri. Two-thirds of that amount was spent in the first year. The wholesale cost for 50 grafted chestnut trees is $848, or $16.95 per tree. Seedlings, 1 to 2 feet tall, are considerably less, at about $3.50 each. Stolee's trees were 8 feet tall and cost about $16 to $18 per tree.

Aside from weeds and drought, animals and birds are a chestnut grower's worst enemies. Deer love to browse the trees and rub their antlers against them. Stolee combats mice, hundreds of them. He calculated that he eradicated 500 mice in one season.

PRECISION PLANNING

Beyond mice and mowing, Stolee enjoys the chestnuts. "It is something different in corn and soybean country. I enjoy watching them come out of dormancy and put on 2, 3 or 4 feet over the summer, and imagine how they will be in 15 years."

To end where this began: Recall those straight rows of chestnuts. They grew out of military precision. Stolee and friend Jacob Handsaker, owner of Hands On Excavating, in Radcliffe, used the company's Trimble GPS unit to line up the trees. "We drove around and GPSed every tree within a thousandth of an inch. It took us awhile to do it, but it's like Arlington National Cemetery out there."

(AG)

By Todd Hultman
DTN Lead Analyst

The way trading has gone for corn and soybeans lately, I wouldn't blame producers for avoiding their quote screens, as the news has not been pleasant. Day by day, corn prices have dripped slowly lower, a modern form of water torture for those holding last fall's harvest. DTN's Corn Index of average cash prices closed at $3.37 Wednesday, down from its February high of $3.52.

The situation for soybean prices hasn't been any better, as Wednesday's close in DTN's Soybean Index sported a new 2019 low of $7.96 a bushel.

Fundamentally, it is easy to find explanations for April's lower prices, starting with more competition on the way from South America. A return of good weather to Brazil and Argentina in 2019 has USDA estimating a 600 million bushel (mb) increase in total corn exports from the two countries and a 276 mb increase in soybean exports.

For corn, USDA piled on the bearish argument with an early planting estimate of 92.8 million acres and surprised us with a higher-than-expected March 1 corn stocks total of 8.6 billion bushels (bb). Demand slowed more than expected and some additional 2018 harvest may have shown up late, but bullish hopes were deflated when USDA put its estimate of ending corn stocks back above 2.0 bb for 2018-19.

For soybeans, the encroaching bearishness has been less surprising as it is not too difficult to understand the implications of the world's largest soybean buyer having a 25% tariff on U.S. soybeans. In the fall of 2018, U.S. soybean demand saw some benefit from cheaper U.S. prices than Brazil prices. However, that advantage disappeared in late December as Brazil's prices have been more attractive for most of 2019.

U.S.-China trade talks continue and the diplomatic spin has been perpetually hopeful, yet never quite in reach of an actual agreement. With USDA estimating U.S. record high ending soybean stocks of 895 mb (or possibly more if exports don't get a late boost), potential buyers appear to be losing patience with trade talk optimism.

If you are familiar with how I look at markets, you know that the fundamental explanations given above are important, but are only part of the story in understanding crop prices. Markets are people and people's moods also play a large part in dictating where prices trade.

Gauging how people feel about a market is more elusive than counting bushels in inventory and can also involve factors outside the corn market. Thanks to CFTC's weekly Commitments of Traders reports, we can measure how speculators feel about a market by the positions they carry. For example, a simple way of noting bullish market sentiment in corn is to calculate what percent of all noncommercial (speculative) positions are long corn.

It is probably not surprising, given the bearish fundamental scenarios described above, but as of the most recent data on April 9, 43% of noncommercial positions are currently long in corn futures and 44% are long in soybeans -- both bearish indications of traders' moods.

Going back to 2000, this is only the sixth time speculators have been bearish in corn at this time of year. For soybeans, it is only the third time since 2000. This is also the most bearish sentiment corn has shown in April since 2002 and the most bearish since 2001 for soybeans.

Bearish market sentiment is common at harvest time after a season of good weather, but it is not common for markets to be so overly gloomy in the second week of April. The situation for soybeans may be a little more understandable as the trade dispute with China is clearly unique. If there is a ray of hope for higher row-crop prices, it is that previous episodes of April blues turned out to be unfounded.

Consider that in the five previous bearish situations for corn, four of them experienced significant rallies (also known as higher selling opportunities) before reaching harvest. In both of the previous bearish soybean situations, significant rallies took place.

In April 2002, USDA estimated U.S. ending corn stocks at 1.616 bb or 16.5% of annual use. The outlook for corn prices after four years of big crops and sluggish demand was so poor that only 38% of noncommercial positions were on the long side of the market.

Later in 2002, an unexpected stretch of adverse weather lifted DTN's Corn Index from $1.82 a bushel in early April to over $2.70 a bushel by early September. That is no guarantee that adverse weather will rescue prices from their lower levels in 2019, but it helps to know that previous unusual sour moods in April have generally not worked out well for noncommercial shorts, even in times that were considered more fundamentally bearish than today.

Given the excess soil moisture across the Midwest, drought is not a likely problem in 2019, but spring has already offered several challenges and who knows what else we may encounter this year.

The market's bearish fundamentals have their place. We can rule out $5.00 corn and beans in the teens. But we don't have to agree with the market's excessive bearish moods when history shows otherwise.

Todd Hultman can be reached at Todd.Hultman@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ToddHultman

(BE/BAS)

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- We've all seen them -- the startling pictures of giant Palmer amaranth plants towering over soybean fields, with their long, spiky seed heads jutting toward the sky.

But by the time you find that monster in your fields, it's too late to control it. The coming weeks are prime time for spotting Palmer amaranth plants when they are still small enough to kill and stop an infestation.

The problem is Palmer amaranth seedlings can look an awful lot like other plant species, particularly waterhemp and other types of pigweed.

North Dakota State University Extension weed scientist Joe Ikley has some tips on how to distinguish this weed -- which may be new to many in the Midwest -- early in the season.

1. THE TOOLS TO HAVE

The magic numbers for weed control are 4 to 6 inches. Weeds bigger than this are harder to kill and more likely to survive a herbicide application. Keep in mind that Palmer amaranth is an especially aggressive weed capable of growing 1 to 3 inches in a single day, depending on weather conditions.

Fortunately, a lot of common items fall within this size range for easy reference. A soda can is 4 inches tall, most index fingers are 3 to 4 inches in length and hey -- how about that smartphone you carry around? It's probably between 4 to 6 inches in length, Ikley noted.

More importantly for Palmer identification, most smartphones also have cameras that are high enough quality to help you find the tiny differences that separate a Palmer amaranth seedling from its lookalikes, Ikley said. "If you take a focused picture of the pigweed, you can zoom in on the picture and see a lot more," he explained. "It's like a little magnifying glass that most people don't even realize they have in their pocket."

2. IT'S ALL IN THE HAIR

So you've found a suspicious seedling. The first thing to do is see how hairy it is, Ikley said. By the time they are about 2 inches tall, certain pigweed species such as Powell amaranth and redroot or smooth pigweed will sport fine, tiny hairs on their stems, known officially as pubescence. The stems and leaves of Palmer amaranth and waterhemp, however, are smooth and hair-free.

These hairs can be hard to see, especially if your eyes aren't the sharpest, Ikley admitted. "One trick is to hold the plant up to the light and -- especially if the plant is wet -- the hairs will stand out better," he said. If you have a smartphone, try taking a focused photo on your smartphone and zoom in on the stem to spot them, he added.

Finding smooth, hairless stems and leaves effectively rules out other pigweed species -- now it's down to Palmer amaranth and waterhemp.

3. PETIOLE LENGTH

Now it's time to check the length of the petiole -- the narrow, branch-like structure that connects a leaf to the stem.

Look for a seedling with eight to 10 leaves, and pluck one of the oldest, mature leaves near the bottom of the plant, Ikley said.

Fold the petiole over the length of the leaf blade and see how long it is. A waterhemp seedling will have short petioles that will not be longer than the length of the leaf. A Palmer amaranth seedling will have long petioles that will be as long as the leaf, if not longer.

Because of the length of these petioles, as well as their alternating pattern on the stem, most of the leaves of the Palmer seedling are visible when you peer down at them from above, giving the plant a rosette appearance, like a Poinsettia.

4. THE LOOK OF THE LEAF

In general, waterhemp and Palmer amaranth seedlings also have different leaf shapes. Waterhemp leaves tend to be longer and narrower, like little lances. Palmer leaves will be fatter, particularly in the middle, giving them a more oval or diamond shape.

Some Palmer plants also have a white chevron or V-shaped pattern in the middle of the leaf -- but not all. So while it can rule out a different pigweed species if present, it is not a definitive identification tool.

In general, there is a lot of genetic diversity among both Palmer and waterhemp plants and even some hybridization between the two, Ikley noted. So treat leaf shape and appearance as a useful but not final indicator of plant species.

5. CHECK THAT NOTCH

The first two or three true leaves on a Palmer amaranth plant often sport a single, stubby hair emerging from the notch at the leaf tip.

Most common waterhemp plants don't have this, which makes it a generally useful sign of Palmer. But some waterhemp plants have been observed with leaf tip hairs in the Western Corn Belt, and some Palmer plants have been observed without it, Ikley cautioned.

Like leaf shape, use the notch hair to help confirm a Palmer amaranth seedling, but don't rely on it exclusively. The safest and surest signs of a Palmer amaranth seedling remain smooth, hairless stems and leaves and long petiole length on the first true leaves, Ikley said.

And remember, when in doubt, you can always send a plant sample to a laboratory for official confirmation via molecular analysis.

For more details, as well as helpful pictures and illustrations, see this guide from Purdue University: https://www.extension.purdue.edu/…, and this guide from North Dakota State University: http://www.dtn.com/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/AG)

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (DTN) -- The Trump administration shouldn't grant more than three dozen small-refiner exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard at a time when farmers are already feeling the impacts of low commodity prices due to lost trade, the head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association said Wednesday.

Speaking at the Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy ethanol plant, Monte Shaw, executive director of the IRFA, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig called on the Environmental Protection Agency to reject 39 requests by refiners to be exempt from the blending requirements of the 2018 obligated blend volumes. The requests come after former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt granted more than 50 such waivers for 2016 and 2017 that affected as many as 2.5 billion gallons in biofuel volume.

Shaw listed several reasons why EPA should outright reject the small-refinery exemptions (SREs). The biggest reason, Shaw said, is the low price for Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), the blending credits attached to every gallon of biofuels. A year ago, RINs were trading at 60-plus cents per gallon. Now the D6 RIN price is closer to 10 cents per gallon. Shaw said there have been reports of RINs now trading at 8 cents per gallon.

"If you can justify granting small-refinery exemptions under today's circumstances, where you can buy a RIN for 8 cents, then what EPA would really be saying is it's always going to grant small-refinery exemptions," Shaw said. "Then, the hope of a 15-billion-gallon RFS is dead. That is not what Congress intended, nor is that what President [Donald] Trump promised."

The 39 exemptions, if all approved, would affect roughly 1 billion gallons in ethanol demand. "This happens at a time when our farmers in rural America can least afford it," Naig said.

While acknowledging EPA has authority to grant the exemptions, Naig said EPA also has the authority to grant exemptions in a way that doesn't harm the biofuels industry as well.

"I think [EPA] Administrator [Andrew] Wheeler inherited quite a mess when it comes to this issue," Naig said. "I think it's an opportunity to do the right thing here." He added, "So, we could call on EPA and on Wheeler to do the right thing."

Naig also said any exemptions should require reallocating those obligated ethanol gallons to other refiners.

Shaw said the ethanol industry's requests to stop the SREs and get final approval of year-round E15 ethanol blends are reasonable requests that have gotten repeated support from President Donald Trump.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry last week, alerting him to 39 applications sent to the EPA by companies seeking the small-refinery exemption in the Renewable Fuel Standard. Grassley's letter raised questions to Perry about the Department of Energy's scoring for small refiners that EPA uses to grant approval.

A recent court case showed EPA approved prior-year exemptions under former administrator Scott Pruitt even though the Energy Department viability scores showed there was no economic reason the refiners needed those exemptions. Pruitt and EPA previously had asserted that all exemptions were based on the Energy Department's analysis. Grassley's letter asked the Energy Department for some clarity.

Shaw talked Wednesday about Grassley's letter. Shaw called on Congress to determine whether Pruitt misled Congress about the way EPA uses the Department of Justice recommendations.

Naig deflected a question about whether RFS small-refinery exemptions would hurt President Trump's support with farmers, given the challenges farmers have faced with trade. Naig said he believed trade deals would get done and the White House would make the right decisions on the RFS.

"At a time when we are facing enough challenge, we don't need anymore," Shaw said.

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

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG/CZ )

By Rod Mauszycki
DTN Tax Columnist

I'm writing this article as my "break" from reviewing tax returns. Let me tell you, this has been a challenging year! Between new tax laws, new tax forms and certain states' nonconformity, this will go down as a top-five-worst tax season. I was going to write on some of the top issues I've seen, but I'll wait for a future column.

What I'd like to touch on in this column are vehicles. Back in December, I remember a radio advertisement that, to paraphrase, said, "Buy a car and get a tax credit." It made me laugh. Apparently, the advertising community has no clue about tax laws! Now that I'm talking to my clients, it's amazing how many downsized their vehicles only to be surprised that they could not fully depreciate/expense the purchase.

So what are the rules?

The vehicle must be used 50% or more in a qualified business. If the business use is 50%, only 50% can be depreciated (or 50% lease payments expensed). There are also special rules if the vehicle is used by someone not directly connected to your business.

Let's start with passenger vehicles (cars, trucks and vans that are under 6,000 pounds gross vehicle weight). If you place a passenger automobile in use, the maximum depreciation and/or expense deduction shall not exceed:

-- First year - $10,000 (additional $8,000 if you elect bonus depreciation).

-- Second year - $16,000.

-- Third year - $9,600.

-- Fourth and later years - $5,760.

Now here is the confusing part: The IRS issued a Revenue Procedure (Rev. Proc. 2019-13 if you have trouble sleeping) in February for those who use bonus depreciation on passenger vehicles. It's too complex to get into, but a key takeaway is that you might end up depreciating the passenger vehicle past the five-year asset life.

If the vehicle is under 6,000 pounds, I would ask my clients if they intend on keeping the car/van/truck in excess of five years. Most times, the answer is "No." If that is the case, the client might be better off leasing the vehicle (two-to-three-year higher-mileage lease -- but be aware if the fair market value exceeds $50,000, there may be inclusion of income issues) or simply taking mileage.

Large vehicles (gross vehicle weight over 6,000 pounds) are not subject to depreciation limits, but limited to $25,000 of Sect. 179 expense. Like all things IRS, there are exceptions:

-- Vehicle is designed to allow more than nine people to sit behind the driver (i.e. bus).

-- Vehicle has a cargo area of 6 feet or more (i.e. extended bed pickups).

-- Vehicle does not have seating behind driver (commercial van).

If any of these exceptions apply, there are no limitations on Sect. 179 expensing. Most trucks and large SUVs fall under the 25K Sect. 179 expense limitation; however, you can still use bonus depreciation to fully write off the cost.

I know what you are thinking: How can something as simple as depreciating a business asset be so hard?

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Editor's note: Tax Columnist Rod Mauszycki is a CPA and tax partner with the accounting firm of CliftonLarsonAllen, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Send questions to taxman@dtn.com

(AG/SK)

By Scott Williams
DTN Entomologist

A drawn-out harvest prevented many farmers from completing fall fieldwork. That may increase the susceptibility of many fields to one of our perennial pests, the black cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon). And, if the winds blow just right, they'll be paying your fields a visit before you know it.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

A drawn-out harvest prevented many farmers from completing fall fieldwork. That may increase the susceptibility of many fields to one of our perennial pests, the corn pest black cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon). And, if the winds blow just right, they'll be paying your fields a visit before you know it.

-- Egg: Eggs are laid on non-crop foliage or other vegetation, with common hosts including chickweed, shepherd's purse and wild mustards. The eggs appear as whitish domes with around 35 to 40 ridges that run from apex to base. As the eggs mature, they change in color to a brown hue.

-- Larva: The larvae hatch five to 10 days after eggs are laid, depending on the temperature. The larvae are gray to black in color, giving the species its name. Other distinctive features include a "greasy" skin appearance, lighter-colored ventral area, pairs of unevenly sized black dots on each body segment and a brown head capsule. If disturbed, the caterpillar may curl up into a "C" shape to protect itself. As they grow in size, the larvae move off the plant on which they're feeding and into the soil nearby, only coming out at night.

-- Pupa: Larvae complete their growth roughly a month after hatching and pupate about 1 to 4 inches below the soil surface. The pupae are therefore rarely seen but appear as brown spindles less than 1 inch in length.

DAMAGE

Younger black cutworms feed on foliage and will leave small, irregular holes behind. Older caterpillars feed closer to the surface, notching the stem or cutting it off entirely to drag the plant below the surface and feed in peace. A single cutworm can kill up to five plants during its life span. Severe infestations can lead to losses of 80% but, more typically, damage is localized to areas of the field. Late planting, reduced tillage, wet soil and nearby weeds increase the odds of significant damage.

MANAGEMENT

Start by removing alternative hosts. Eliminating early-season weeds in and around fields makes them less attractive to incoming moths. Set the biofix (refers to when to start counting degree days for a specific pest) when pheromone traps record nine or more moths over a two-night period, and scout fields for signs of damage soon after plant emergence. If cutworms are present, leaf damage should appear 90 to 300 degree-days after the biofix. If damage is present, check five areas of the field (20 plants each) and note the growth stage of the plants and the number with feeding damage. If cutworms are present, collect 10 larvae to determine the average instar of the population. If damage exceeds the economic threshold for the average instar (see references below), treatment may be necessary.

Bt hybrids containing the Cry1F protein (Herculex/HX1) or Vip3a protein (Viptera), alone or in stacks, are labeled as controlling black cutworm. While they reduce risk, corn might still be damaged under heavy pressure. Seed treatments may not always provide satisfactory control, especially at lower rates. Post-rescue treatments can be effective when combined with careful scouting.

Black cutworm is among many insects targeted by DTN products and services, including the Agronomic Insights, AP and DTN Smart Trap. (DTN is the parent company of Progressive Farmer magazine)

For more information:

Purdue University: tinyurl.com/ja3lexw

University of Minnesota: tinyurl.com/y3oxxa4o

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Editor's Note: Write Scott Williams at Pest Watch, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or e-mail scott.williams@dtn.com.

(ES/SK)

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