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Not time for planting panic, specialists say

Jeff Caldwell 04/26/2011 @ 3:43pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Once it warms up and dries out, a lot of corn will get planted in a short amount of time in the Corn Belt. But, if you don't have the biggest, newest equipment, that doesn't count you out in the race to finish planting the 2011 corn crop. And either way, just don't get in too big of a hurry, specialists advise.

A week of good weather can move mountains when it comes to planting progress; In a week's time, more than 50% of the corn crop in several key states has been planted on more than on occasion in the last 5 decades, according to USDA data. And, there are a few surprises in the numbers, according to University of Illinois Extension economists Scott Irwin and Darrel Good.

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no trend toward planting a larger percentage of the crop in the peak week of planting since 1960," according to a report this week from University of Illinois economists Scott Irwin and Darrel Good. "The largest weekly planting progress was reached in 1963 (60%) in Illinois, 1963 in Indiana (55%), and 1992 in Iowa (64%). The evidence suggests that the crop is not planted more quickly with larger, but fewer planters than was accomplished with smaller, but more numerous planters in the past."

Still, Irwin and Good estimate that 35% to 50% of the nation's corn crop could be planted by mid-May, assuming conditions improve around the start of the month. "The intermediate term weather forecast provides mixed prospects for such an improvement. It appears that planting delays will continue and may become more pronounced particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the Corn Belt," they say in a recent report.

And, just because you may not have a kernel in the ground yet doesn't mean you're going to have subpar yields. Just 2 years ago, only 5% of the crop was planted by May 5, and only half the crop was in the ground by May 20. "But, beyond anyone's most optimistic dreams, we also had good yields in 2009 (averaging 174 bushels statewide), due mostly to the long, cool growing season," says University of Illinois Extension agronomist Emerson Nafziger.

While he admits a complete repeat of 2009 is a longshot this year, Nafziger advises not getting in a hurry to plant, even if you're delayed long enough to trim your yields. Rush things and you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

"Even though we can start to see mounting losses if planting is delayed into May, we need to restrain ourselves from adding to yield losses by planting in poor conditions before the soil is ready." he says. "Almost without exception, opening up a wet soil by tillage means doing a lot of subsurface compaction, and depending on the year this may be a serious problem for the crop's root system. We have no formula for how much more yield might be lost by rushing planting than might be lost by waiting to plant until conditions are better, but it's likely that the tradeoff does not favor earlier planting into poor conditions before late May or early June."

   

So, what if you're in Doug Martin's shoes and you've already got corn sitting in the field? Early spring field conditions were good -- they allowed Martin to get some corn planted on his farm near Mount Pulaski in central Illinois.

"Our first planted corn is up and looking a little pale from the lack of sunlight we have had. All of the low areas of the fields that worked so good a couple of weeks ago are now full of water and will probably have to be replanted," he says. "Hopefully we can get back on schedule next week, but all of the rain is starting to bring back nightmares from the last couple of years."

It's not quite time for farmers like Martin to start planning on replanting, say Mark Reed Hinze and Greg Kruger, University of Nebraska Extension crop specialists. Instead, start by scouting fields well to determine how much germination has been hampered by cool, wet soils.

"Soil temperatures are currently just below the established optimal minimum of 50°F for normal corn development. As temperatures warm up, corn seedlings will start to grow more rapidly. Cooler than normal soil temperature will retard the normal development, but at this point, it is not yet detrimental to stand establishment. Serious germination and/or establishment problems would be expected only after an extended period of temperatures below 50 degrees, usually 3 or 4 more weeks," Hinze and Kruger say in a recent report.

"Of course, this can be compounded if we have too much soil moisture and anerobic (without oxygen) conditions develop. This would prevent normal, healthy plant respiration," they add. "If this is the case in particular low-lying, swampy field areas, you may need to replant in areas where water has been standing for three or more days."

If you do need to replant, Hinze and Kruger advise not "rushing out to start over with this year's corn crop" and instead take the following steps:

  1. Leave the fields that you have already planted until all other fields with high yield potential are planted. Doing this will give you the opportunity to clearly assess the corn stand and yield potential.
  2. Assess the actual corn population. Use this corn stand as a starting point for whether to replant. Conditions in Nebraska vary widely for ideal corn populations depending on whether the field is irrigated, the average annual precipitation, and the length of growing season.
  3. Assess the uniformity of germination in the field. Corn fields with nonuniform plant emergence will have lower yield potential than fields with uniform emergence.
  4. Use the data you have collected on plant population and uniformity of emergence, clearly identify how quickly the field can be replanted and determine if the cost of replanting plus any potential yield increase justifies replanting.

"In many cases, this assessment will likely indicate that replanting is not justified unless the cold, wet weather conditions persist. However, plant stands may be considerably lower than planting populations because the longer the seedlings sit in the soil before germinating, the more susceptible they are to early season diseases and insects," the Nebraska specialists say. "The best recommendation for addressing this risk is thorough and frequent scouting."

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