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The planting fat lady hasn't sung yet

Had a rough spring so far? If you're still waiting to plant the majority of your corn and soybean crops -- like many farmers in the eastern Corn Belt -- the big crop decisions on your plate have probably changed quite a bit.

First off, if you weren't able to get it done last fall, you may have tillage to do. So, what should you do if you've got work to do before you can even plant, even as time draws short?

"A common reaction is to grasp for the tillage tool to dry out the soil," says Pennsylvania State University Extension soil management specialist Sjerd Duiker. Here are some suggestions "why this might be a bad idea," Duiker says:

  • Long-term no-till soil is firmer and holds up equipment so you can access the field faster than if it is tilled.
  • Long-term no-till soils have improved surface tilth which makes soil fit sooner for planting after rain. This is the result of higher organic matter content in the top 2 inches of no-till soil as well as greater fine root accumulation in the surface.
  • Long-term no-till soil has improved drainage due to high biological activity. Night crawler burrows make deep holes which help move free water from the soil surface to groundwater or tile drains.
  • Crop residue keeps depth control and closing wheels clean.
  • Instead of investing in tillage it would be better to invest in planter attachments that help getting better results planting no-till in sub-optimal conditions.
  • Soil temperatures are already fit for corn planting, no matter which tillage system you are using.
  • The major important thing is to get your crop planted - why waste time tilling?
  • Tilling wet soil will get you in a pickle - it may cause very cloddy soil conditions which leads to poor seed-to-soil contact.
  • A wet spring in a ‘La Nina’ system is often followed by a dry summer. Burying mulch now will lead to reduced moisture savings in the summer.

Even late corn pays

If you're late in getting your crops in, some specialists say it's still not time to change all your plans just yet. Even if you're not able to raise your biggest bin-busting crop, you still might be able to make corn worth its while on those acres you've still got unplanted, say University of Minnesota Extension economist and agronomist Kent Olson and Jeff Coulter.

"Much of the U.S. Corn Belt is suffering from poor planting conditions this year, so total corn production likely will decline," Olson and Coulter say in a recent university report. "Markets will react and have reacted by pushing corn prices up. And if more farmers switch to soybeans, total soybean production may increase and markets will push soybean prices down. Revenue needs to be considered as well as yield."

Pick the right varieties

Even though planting corn's not out of the question yet, changing hybrids may be a good thing to consider, Olson and Coulter say. But, don't just look for the shortest-season corn you can. Look at the window you have left and factor in the whole growing season, says Purdue University Extension agronomist Bob Nielsen.

"One of the biggest agronomic concerns with severely delayed planting is the risk of the crop not reaching physiological maturity before a killing fall freeze and the yield losses that could result," he says. "Typically, a one-day difference in relative maturity rating equals 0.5 percent difference in grain moisture content at harvest. That means there will only be about two points difference between a 106-day hybrid and a 110-day hybrid, for example, at harvest."

What's the rush?

But, even if you're planting shorter-season varieties making it possible to take a little more time in the field, you may still be in a rush to get everything in the ground. If that's the case, don't let your haste get in the way of good field scouting as you're planting and as the crop's emerging, says University of Illinois Extension crop systems educator Robert Bellm.

“This is especially true when it comes to crop scouting,” Bellm says in a university report. “When thousands of acres need to be covered in a very short time frame and the late planting date leaves little opportunity to replant a damaged, less than optimum stand, many growers tend to err on the side of caution and apply pest control measures at the earliest sign of a problem.”

Any pest management practice needs to be economical and return more dollars to the grower than it costs, he adds. “This is where correct pest identification becomes a critical factor. There are several pests of corn that can cause very similar damage symptoms, and are easily mistaken for one another if one hurries and does not observe closely.”

Black cutworms, however, are actually manageable once the corn seed has been placed in the ground. But, misidentification can lead to a pesticide application that is less than worthless. One type of damage currently being observed in newly emerged corn is cutting of plants at the groundline, Bellm says in a university report.

“The quick reaction is to call in the sprayers to control a black cutworm infestation,” he says. “However, redwing blackbirds and grackles also cut off corn seedlings as they tug and peck in an attempt to access the seed that is buried in the ground.”

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