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Prepping soils for the 2013 crop

Once you get this fall's crop in the bin, the drought of 2012 will be behind you, right? Wrong.

How you handle your fields after harvest this fall and next spring before planting your 2013 crop will go a long way to determining how well your farm bounces back from the drought, says University of Illinois Extension agronomist Emerson Nafziger.

Prior to planting this year's crop, many farmers who conduct tillage were able to do so in drier soils, meaning there weren't as many incidents of compaction. So, the soil was in better shape going into the growing season. Then, the water turned off. So now, if you're planning on conducting any fall tillage, make sure you're matching your implement to your field conditions.

"Expect soils to be mellower than normal during fall tillage and match the tillage operation, if any is needed, to this condition," Nafziger says in a university report. "That includes paying attention to how much residue is being left on the surface."

And, don't just be willing to adjust your tillage operations, but also their timing. If your soils are too dry, trying to till them now won't do you much good and, in fact, can put you in a worse spot, farmers say.

"We will probably need to wait until we get some moisture so we can pull the chisel through [the soil]. Just try to take a spade to the ground," says Agriculture.com Crop Talk contributor jc217. "It will just bounce off the surface like you are digging concrete. Chiseling it before we get some rain will just wear the points excessively fast and leave large chunks of dirt behind the chisel."

But, do you depend on fall tillage for other reasons? Spring's too jam-packed for Crop Talk frequent contributor infire, so he's hoping enough moisture comes along between now and winter to allow him to make at least one tillage pass.

"My problem with skipping fall tillage is how to handle it in the spring," he says. "I have about 5 hours in the spring where bean stubble works nice with the finisher, then it's too hard, and before that, it's way too wet."

Another consideration moving into the 2013 crop will be the differences in nutrient management. Though many farmers applied full rates of fertilizer this past spring, the drought prevented those nutrients from being taken up by stunted corn plants. So, chances are, some of those nutrients are still in the soil. Make sure you get a clear picture of your nutrient profile before you make any decisions, like starting a cover crop or going with a different crop rotation for the sake of preserving soil fertility.

"Some producers are considering wheat as a follow crop for corn in dry areas. In some cases, wheat (or rye) might also be used as a cover crop to take up some of the nitrogen left in the soil," according to a university report. "Although having some of the leftover soil nitrogen stay in a (grass) cover crop for a subsequent corn crop may seem to be a good way to recycle nitrogen, allowing rye or wheat cover crops to grow into the spring can interfere with establishing the corn crop, especially if it is to be planted in early April. Managing a grass cover crop to establish soybeans might be easier, although wet soils and a heavy cover-crop residue can present challenges for any crop that follows a cover crop."

So, what's the right rate to apply? A lot depends on the residual nitrates left by this year's corn, and that depends a lot on the amount of drought damage that crop incurred, says Iowa State University Extension agronomist John Sawyer.

"As a conservative approach, a minimum rate recommendation of 50 lb N/acre should be considered. If fall/spring precipitation is well above normal, then the carryover nitrate would not be likely, especially in soils with high leaching potential," he says. "Sandy soils are not likely to retain carryover nitrate."

Crop Talk frequent contributor buckfarmer says he expects a cover crop will help keep a good nutrient base on his farm, though.

"I'm planting more cover crops to capture more N. We have quite a few warm days through the winter here in southern Ohio and I'm always afraid we lose lots on N," he says. "First noticed this when I would get no yield increase after beans."

His eye on the sky is a good benchmark, adds Nafziger: "While we know there is some nitrogen left in dry soils now, the amount available to next year’s crop will depend on the weather between now and next spring."

One bright spot heading into fall, especially if you're looking to conduct tillage before winter rolls in, is the current state of any corn residue in your fields now, or that will be left after you run the combine. Because of this summer's drought, a lot of corn fields suffered from a shortage of lignin, a major contributor of the strength and rigidity of corn stalks. And, the less lignin in the field, the softer the residue, making it easier to till, Nafziger says.

All these factors -- tillage opportunities, nutrient carryover and remaining crop residue -- should contribute to your crop management and, ultimately, planting decisions between now and next spring, he adds.

"This is not a suggestion to plant more corn and fewer soybean acres next year following this year's corn crop," Nafziger says. "Corn following corn is showing more stress effects again this year, in some areas for a third year in a row. Even though a field with a short corn crop this year may be more 'corn-friendly' than normal next year, it is unlikely that corn following a corn crop -- even a low-yielding one – will yield more than corn following soybean."

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