6 questions with NASS crops chief

Lance Honig, chief of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's crops branch, answered questions posed by Illinois Farm Bureau members during a recent interview with RFD Radio Network. 

Q: What role does crop maturity and planting date have in yield calculations? Many ag universities provide a standard chart or yield expectation vs. planting date. Why not incorporate that into your data?

A: Our yield information comes primarily from two different survey sources. The first is from the farmers themselves. We do surveys month after month where we reach out to farmers and we ask them specifically what they expect their yields to be and then of course at the end of the season we go back and ask them what their yields actually were. So, certainly as a farmer's looking at his crop during the season and trying to determine what he or she thinks it's going to yield, maturity is going to come into play. So, you get into a year like this, and certainly with the crops being behind, that's going to have an impact on how you evaluate your crop and it will be reflected in what you report to us for your yield expectations.

Lance Honig

And then the second survey that we do is our objective yields survey and of course this is where we put enumerators into fields across the key growing area. And they're actually out there taking counts, measurements, and maturity is a big deal for that survey. In fact, when an enumerator gets into the field, before they do anything, basically they're determining what the maturity is at that point because the maturity is going to determine exactly what they count, what they measure. They're going to record that as well because then as we evaluate those counts and measurements they took, maturity comes into play, and so we're going to compare that against what similar maturity has done in the past for that point this season. And so, it really is a big deal to us. We don't use standard charts or things of that nature because we're basing it on actual history that we have, what we've seen with the data, and what that means to the crop. We're not using their charts but certainly we're factoring maturity into the yield forecasts that we make.

Q: Do you conduct field surveys for the August report and if not, is a report even warranted?

A: Field surveys, or objective yield as we call them -- up until this season we did do objective yield field work for corn and soybeans in August. This was actually the first year that we stopped that. We made that determination before the season started. So it wasn't based on this current year -- based on the type of year that we're having or the delays that we're seeing -- although with the crop being so far behind I think that it actually worked out really well because the crop was so immature in August. But the bottom line is that we stopped doing that basically to be more efficient. And the reason I say that is because historically we've had both objective yield and the farmer survey data in August just as we do in the following months. And of course, I'm talking specifically about corn and soybeans. But what we found over time is that because of the immaturity of the crop in August -- and that's even in a normal year -- that basically the information we were getting from the farmers was actually providing us better data in August than what we got from the fields themselves and therefore it just made sense for us to streamline that effort and phase out that field work for the first month. We did pick it up in September and we'll continue it on through October and November and get those final …. data collected before the end of the season. So, no, currently we don't put the enumerators into the fields for that August survey. And I think it does still make sense to do the report because again based on the history that we have, we're actually able to forecast those final yields just as well with the farmer reported data in August as we were with the field reported data in the past.

Q: How do you work with FSA numbers knowing that in some cases they are going to be a little bit different?

A: We work really closely with FSA. A lot of times folks will ask me, ‘Do you guys even bother to look at that or do you even bother talking to those folks?’ And the answer is: I talk to those folks a lot. We work really closely together. And you're right. You know that data is not complete. It doesn't give us everything that we need, but it's really helpful information primarily for planted acreage. If you look at what gets reported to FSA, the certified acreage information, that's obviously reflecting acres that are actually planted. Now additionally, you do as a producer also report your prevent plant acres and that's been a big topic this year since there obviously was a lot of prevent plant acreage. But the prevent plant acreage is not factored directly into our numbers and that is strictly because those are acres that were not planted. I mean that's by definition, and if you look at a NASS estimate, planted area refers to acres that actually were planted. So those two categories obviously are completely different -- prevent plant, not planted; NASS planted acres are acres actually planted to that crop. So, they're a little bit separate that way. But those certified acres factor very heavily into the planted acreage numbers that we publish. They were again this year. August was really the first time we saw data complete enough to really factor into that equation. We worked that into the report in August. We'll evaluate that again going into the October report because that data continues to trickle in even today over to FSA. So, we continue to evaluate that. But it doesn't mean that we ignored the prevent plant acres either and we've had a lot of conversations this year about that. But if you want to look at the prevent plant acres and how they can be matched up against NASS, you really need to look at the big picture and in other words look across the crops. So you know if you look at the FSA prevent plant acres, you’re approaching 20 million acres, but if you look at the NASS estimates and look at our principle crop total, which is the sum of our 22 major crops, you'll see that our total this year is down nearly 21 million acres from our recent high back in 2014. So, we definitely recognize that a lot of acres were not able to be planted this year and you'll see that reflected in our numbers.

Q: When you do yield surveys is the procedure the same month after month when you're taking yield surveys for production reports?

A: Our procedures are very, very specific. They are the same year in and year out. But with that said, and we'll talk a lot about the objective yield here because farmer surveys are pretty straightforward; You ask a question you get a response. But when we send these enumerators into the fields, we're very specific in our instructions – that’s exactly what they're to do when they get there -- and again as I mentioned earlier it's all based on maturity. So, you know even before they determine where to make their counts though we've given them extremely specific instructions on how to locate that plot within the field and we do that to ensure that it's a randomly located spot. We want to make sure that the enumerator doesn't have any influence over where that sample plot falls because as humans -- we're all human -- we could have a tendency to migrate to either a good spot, a bad spot or whatever that might be. But the procedures are such that we take that out of their hands, and we let the process determine exactly where that falls in the field. And once they get there based on that maturity, the instructions tell them exactly what to count, where to count it, what to measure, where that measurement comes from and ultimately when that sample location is mature enough, we're going to tell them exactly what to harvest and pull from that plot and send off to our lab in St. Louis, where those procedures are also going to be very specific as to how we weigh the items that come in or measure or count or whatever the process might be. So, very specific, happens the same way, year in and year out.

Q: Has satellite imagery changed at all? How do you use satellites in doing any determinations?

A: So, satellite data is obviously changing a lot over the years and really in the last few years in particular it's really come a long way. We've been looking at satellite information here at NASS for a lot of years, but really over the last few with some of these advances in technology it started to become a lot more helpful for us. But at this point especially when it comes to yield, we're really still using it as a supplement to the survey information that we have. And some of the greatest value it can bring to the process is to help us identify areas that are either significantly better, significantly worse than other areas. It can be very helpful when we have some kind of isolated weather event in determining exactly how widespread it is, how large an impact that might be having. And so again it's becoming more and more valuable as time goes on. But at this point based on the research we've done, the survey data is still a stronger indication of what those final yields are going to be. So, we use the satellite data to supplement all of that survey data that we have.

Q: Many merchants are reporting old crop corn is in short supply. They were wondering about production numbers for 2018. What assurances can you give producers even in January that you have the crop number accurate?

A: Every year we come up with a final acreage yield and production number for each of our crops. And then as part of our normal procedure the following year you have an opportunity to revise that crop. And the reason that we do that the following year is it gives you not only a chance to collect any new or updated information throughout the year if anything were to come in, but also it gives us an opportunity to see the whole marketing season unfold. A good example of that is soybeans just here at the end of September when we put out our grain stocks report. As usual we had an opportunity to revisit the 2018 soybean production and of course the reason we did that was because we now have the ending stocks in place and soybeans is one of those crops that of course you know almost everything is accounted for and measured and we've got really close accounting on that. And based on how that all factored out we did make some adjustments to the 2018 soybean production. The normal procedure for corn is that it happens going into that January report, so we'll be doing exactly the same review that we did for soybeans on corn approaching that January 2020 report. And if we determine that any adjustments need to be made, we'll be making them then.

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.

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