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Don't Rush Into Chilly, Damp Planting

Spring is not exactly kicking off with a bang. Some parts of the country, in fact, will probably see temperatures that may remind them more of the long winter we just concluded.

Don't let it get you down too much this early on in the game. Though the cabin fever may be worse this year than in the past because of the rough winter, don't let it compel you to get in too big a hurry this spring, advises University of Illinois Extension corn agronomist Emerson Nafziger. Doing so doesn't help you much this early on, a time frame that will ultimately be dwarfed in importance by conditions later in the growing season.

"Though having soil temperatures only in the 30s this late in March is somewhat unusual, March soil temperatures are variable over years," he says. "Though having low soil temperatures at this point in March does not produce a lot of optimism that planting will start early, it is also not a very good predictor about how the spring will go, or of what kind of season we’ll have. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that what happens during the summer matters much more than what happens in March and April. We simply need to be ready to do fieldwork and plant as soon as conditions permit."

So, be prepared. What else can you do if most of spring remains cool and damp? The biggest thing to stay away from is anything that can cause compaction, whether applying fertilizer or conducting tillage. Though it may be necessary to do those things ahead of running the planter, don't do it until it's dry enough.

"The likely delay in the start of fieldwork this year may mean re-prioritizing operations once soils dry out. It has been common in wetter springs for the application of anhydrous ammonia to get underway before soils are considered fit to till or plant. That worked OK last year, when soil compaction, due to weather patterns, did not cause much problem for the crop," Nafziger says. "But we can’t count on that, and compaction from applying fertilizer or doing tillage in wet soils can leaves soils in worse condition than before, even if the surface looks a little drier afterwards."

And, more important than those other field operations, don't even think about running the planter too early, Nafziger advises. Though early planting worked out all right in some cases last year, the risk of resulting yield loss makes it a bad choice if you can avoid it.

"Planting in early April almost never produces yields higher than planting in late April, and it can lower yields, even when stands are good. That being said, planting in early April into good soil conditions, with soil temperatures expected to be on the rise after planting, is a sound practice, especially when there are a lot of acres to plant and starting early is the only way to finish on time," he says. "But mudding corn into wet or marginally wet but cool soil conditions in early April is almost always a bad idea, with considerably more potential to do harm than good."

But in some fields, the choice may not be one between good and bad planting conditions. Instead, it may be about choosing between the lesser of two evils. So, if you're faced with either cool, dry soils or warm, damp ones, what's better for preparing for a new crop?

"When it comes to getting soils to dry out, is warm and wet better or worse than cold and dry? Because water has a higher heat capacity than soil mineral matter, cold soils do not dry out very fast, and wet soils do not warm up very fast. We have seen some of the standing water in fields drain out this past week as soils thaw, but the drying process will be very slow until soil temperatures start to increase," Nafziger says. "Water loss rates are affected by soil texture and water content, but we would expect wet soil to lose 0.1 inch or so of water in a day if average soil temperature is 40, and at least twice that amount if the average soil temperature is 60 degrees. So having soils warm up is the key to enabling them dry out, though of course it has to stop raining for soils to dry."

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