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Is it 'nuts' to plant now?

A farmer in southeast Iowa was planting corn last weekend. So says Marketing Talk frequent contributor djsinseia. The local coffee shop talk, he says, ranges from "He's nuts" to "He might be okay with this.

"We'll know more in a few weeks," djsinseia says.

So, which is it -- crazy or okay? One thing's certain -- that southeast Iowa farmer isn't alone in getting the planter rolling already.

"Though there have been some fields planted this soon in the past, this is the earliest we have ever had good planting conditions across so much of the state, and it's certain that we have never before had this many corn acres planted so early," says University of Illinois Extension agronomist Emerson Nafziger, adding researchers in Illinois have never conducted corn yield trials as early as mid-March. But, trials started later in the month have, with fairly consistent results.

"Planting in late March or early April has almost never produced higher yields than planting in late April," Nafziger says. In a dozen trials over the last 3 years, he adds, the later-planted corn has outyielded the mid-March plantings 9 times.

But, it's not a sure thing; planting date studies are "notoriously unpredictable," he adds. Just because it's planted this early doesn't automatically mean it's doomed to a lower yield. In fact, if the weather holds up, it could make for a great start.

"With the warm weather continuing, we expect the crop planted now to get off to a fast start. It takes about 115 growing degree days (GDD) to get corn plants to emerge after planting," Nafziger says. "Highs of about 80 degrees and lows in the 50s mean that we are getting 15 to 18 GDD per day, so we might see emergence within about a week if it stays this warm. Some fields planted very early have already emerged."

Just to the west in Iowa, the numbers show, on average, that state's soils are past the critical 50-degree temperature mark. As of Sunday, the average soil temperature in Iowa was already above 60 degrees, just shy of a month earlier than that mark is usually reached, according to the Iowa Environmental Mesonet (IEM).

Most farmers in areas like these say they're not quite ready to get rolling, mainly out of concern that the weather could turn cooler in the next month. If recent history's any indication, that may be the case this spring.

"It certainly looks like there is potential for this spring to one of the warmest on record for the nation as a whole. This weather pattern easily reminds us of a similar unusual warm March that occurred in 2007," according to Craig Solberg, ag meteorologist with Freese-Notis Weather, Inc., in Des Moines, Iowa. "The warm March weather in 2007 occurred toward the latter part of March and was followed by below normal temperatures during April."

And, if you get planted this soon, it's not just Mother Nature you have to worry about. On top of the frost and freeze possibility, planting early could exhaust an already-strained seed supply. That means if your early-planted corn does get nipped by frost, the seed left for replanting may be far from what you want.

"The biggest danger for corn planted so early would be a return to low temperatures or even frost after the crop has emerged. We are working with a relatively short seed supply due to low seed yields this past year; this could, should replanting be needed, mean taking inferior hybrids or even being unable to get enough seed for a replant," Nafziger says. "Replant seed is also somewhat costly--some companies charge less than full retail for replant seed but might require planting on or after a certain date before making that discount available. Crop insurance may also be an issue."

That latter issue could be a big one, depending on your circumstances and location. If you are considering planting now or soon, you may be planting before the beginning planting date for federal crop insurance, which varies by state and county. Then, if you suffer crop losses on account of weather, your insurance likely won't cover the cost to replant, says Kansas State University Extension farm management specialist and crop insurance expert Art Barnaby. So, it essentially amounts to a high-risk, high-reward situation.

"If you plant before that, what you give up is the replant provision in your contract. If you plant early and there's no claim, then once you're past the planting date, then you have full coverage and nothing's really changed," Barnaby says. "But, if you have a failure before that date, you don't get replant coverage. Under some conditions, the company can require you to replant at your own expense."

And, if you have to replant, you may have seed supply issues. There may be plenty of supply in the pipeline by the time replanting enters the picture, but it may not be the right seed for your acres, adding to the risk of planting this early. Still, replanting is almost always the chosen option.

"With the value of the crop being so high and not knowing what kind of year it's going to be, that's a lot of risk. But, most will replant," Barnaby says. "It's a high-risk, high-return issue."

Ultimately, planting corn this early is a personal choice. There are a lot of risks to doing so, but if the weather cooperates, you could wind up being the one back in the coffee shop touting the earliest planting date.

"For many producers, it will make sense to get fields ready to plant but hold off on planting until the calendar turns to April. Unless temperatures remain far above normal over the next month or more, the risk of planting now may well outweigh the likely return," Nafziger says. "But for those who want to be able to say that they planted corn earlier than ever before -- and before their neighbors -- 2012 is providing the chance."

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