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Stop Planting Sins

Rushing to plant in wet soils can seriously slice yields.

Planting sins aren’t the kind that steer you into a confessional booth with a priest. They are, though, mistakes that can curtail your yields at harvest. 

“The sins you make at planting live with you the entire year,” says Jennifer Wood, a BASF innovation specialist based in Fullerton, Nebraska.With seed (corn) costing $100 to $125 per acre, it’s important to get a good stand and have as many seeds germinate as possible.”

One way to nix planting sins is to prevent them in the first place. “Make sure you test the planter before you start,” says Wood. This can pinpoint any problems before they occur in the field. 

“I go through the planter and check things like double disk openers, furrow openers, and bearings. I make sure all the drives are in working order,” says Ken Cross, Friend, Nebraska. Cross also packs appropriate planter parts with grease and checks for air and oil leaks prior to planting. 

Top Sin 

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Ken Cross and his grandson, 5-year old Gavin.
If there’s one planting sin that surfaces time and time again, it’s planting into excessively wet soils, says A.J. Woodyard, BASF technical crop production specialist.

“Every year, there are costly mechanical mistakes made at planting,” says Woodyard. “By that, I mean going into a field when it’s too wet. That causes compacted soil layers that affect later root development.”

This mistake isn’t made just at planting. Fertilizer spreaders entering excessively wet fields can also compact soils, he says. Ditto for tilling wet fields in the fall. 

“All of these things impact root development and water management as a whole,” he says. “Normally with a corn plant, you expect roots to go out at a 35º angle. When they first grow straight out horizontally and then straight down (caused by compacted soils), you have a problem.” 

There’s also a second reason to avoid planting into cold and wet soils. It can trigger cold chill inhibition. This is when cells rupture after icy cold water enters a seedling, says Wood. This can curb germination and early-season vigor. 

So Why Do It?

Well, you’re squeezing the proverbial 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag at planting. Farms are getting bigger as spring weather is becoming wetter. That’s a collision course for teeth-clenching springtime stress. Iowa is a microcosm of this trend. 

“The general trend is that there will be more heavy spring rain days and more summer droughts in Iowa,” says Chris Anderson, an Iowa State University climatologist. This trend through 2045 will mean 10% to 15% fewer suitable springtime fieldwork days for Iowa farmers. This tight window likely applies to other areas, as well. 

Granted, there are times when you have to plant or risk severe yield loss. Just remember, though, that a day delay at planting does not equate to an equal delay in fall physiological maturity.

“Corn has a real amazing ability to compensate when planted late,” says Jeff Hartz, Wyffels Hybrids director of marketing. “Most research shows a day in April or May is not equal to June, July, and August when it comes to Growing Degree Units (GDUs). Those three summer months are when corn packs on the majority of its GDUs.”

Rather than planting date, a better way to maximize a hybrid’s yield potential is planting into a dry seedbed with a 50ºF. or higher soil temperature. 

“In wet and cold soils, corn just sits there,” Hartz says. “That opens up all kinds of problems like seedling blight and sidewall compaction. It pays to have temperatures warm enough for quick emergence.”

Waiting also helps nix cold chill inhibition. “If soil temperature is warm and relatively stable for a few days, you don’t create the effect of seed chilling,” she says. 

Another consolation if you fall behind by waiting for fit soils is that modern planting equipment allows you to churn out acres in a hurry. “With big planters these days, it doesn’t take farmers long to make up ground,” says Wood.

Stop These Sins

Five steps exist to stop planting sins in their tracks before they start.

1. Space seed properly.

Recall your feeling when you are cramped into a crowded elevator. Feel a bit stressed?

Well, it’s akin to when corn is doubled-jammed into the seed furrow at planting. Conversely, a corn plant that germinates and grows in a wide space prompted by a planter skip might have plenty of room to grow. On a field-wide basis, though, these skips translate into missed yield potential.

“Planters do a good job spacing out seed these days,” says Jennifer Wood, a BASF innovation specialist based in Fullerton, Nebraska. Still, get out of the cab periodically to see if your planter is spacing seeds at the rate you initially set for your population, she advises.  

“Planters today are pretty foolproof, but row units that plug up can lead to skips and doubles,” says Wood. 

2. Maintain uniform seeding depth.

“Any more, planter downpresure automatically adjusts to the correct depth,” says Wood. However, you will want to check seeding depth and make sure it is accurate. If not, yield consequences can be severe.

Jeff Coulter, University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension agronomist, cites a U of M study that showed a one-left stage delay for every other plant sliced average yield by 6% compared with a check uniform plot. A two-stage delay on every other plant cut average yields by 17%.

3. Plant into moisture.

Sufficient moisture is needed to spur seed germination and emergence. This may mean altering your optimum planting depth from time to time.

“If you normally plant 2 inches deep and it’s dry, plant seed deeper,” says Wood. “You want to plant into moisture.”

4. Clear residue.

This is particularly important if you’re no-tilling and/or in corn-on-corn. “This can be a real issue with planters if you don’t adjust for it,” says Wood. Excessive residue can key uneven emergence. 

“You don’t want to impede those plants coming up at a different time than their neighbors,” she says. “Coulters need to chop it in half.”

5. Close the seed furrow.

“You want to make sure you are doing a good job of closing the furrow to ensure there is adequate seed-to-soil contact,” says Wood.

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