There are few mistakes that you can’t overcome, given enough time. But problems at planting time set the stage for an entire season’s worth of trouble.
Many, if not most, planting problems result from failing to adjust practices and equipment to fit soil and weather conditions, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. Since you can’t know what the weather will do, you have to plan for various scenarios.
What if it’s dry? Ferrie has one rule: Don’t plant corn into dry soil, hoping to "rain it up."
"Putting corn in dry soil, and not having it germinate in timely fashion, can be a disaster for your stand," he says. "In 2012, most problems with dry soil resulted from doing spring tillage too far ahead of planting. That lets the soil dry out. Don’t let your soil finisher get too far ahead of the planter in a hot, dry spring."
In a dry situation with conventional tillage, use row cleaners to push away clods in front of the planting units. "If you crush clods with your depth wheels, you’ll put dry soil around the seed," Ferrie says. "Use your row cleaners as a clod roller."
In either no-till or conventional tillage, use row cleaners to move residue out of the way. "Normally, a little residue is no big deal," Ferrie says. "But if it’s dry, residue tucked into the seedbed wicks moisture out of the furrow, away from the seed."
Running out of planting moisture in no-till is rare, but it can happen in sandy soil or if you fail to kill a cover crop on time, Ferrie notes. "It can happen when strip-tilling in coarse soils, if you are not timely with your planter," he says. "In strip-till, you may have to go off the strip and no-till the seed beside it."
In tough conditions, with no rain in the forecast and you know it will be even drier in 10 more days, use your row cleaners to move away the dry soil. Hopefully, this will get you closer to some moisture where you can place the seed, Ferrie advises.
This carries risk, though. "If you applied a pre-emergence herbicide, there will be no herbicide left in the row," Ferrie says. "Have a plan in place to control weeds in the row."
If you "plow down to moisture" in strip-till or conventional tillage, you will actually be planting in a valley. "If the weatherman turns out to be wrong and you get a toadstrangling rain before the corn comes up, the corn will get buried and you’ll have to replant," Ferrie says. "But at least you’ll have moisture to replant in."
Fertilizer management. "In a dry year, be careful about applying starter in the furrow, even if you’re using a low-salt product," Ferrie says. "If you’re worried about having enough moisture to germinate the corn, don’t put any salt in the furrow."
If you apply anhydrous ammonia in the spring, allow at least two weeks between application and planting, and hope for a 2" rain. "In a dry spring, I’ve seen ammonia applied in February burn corn planted in April," Ferrie says. "If you have auto-steer, you can use it to apply the ammonia and then plant between the ammonia strips."
Here are a couple of other things to keep in mind if spring turns out dry: "Soil-applied herbicides need moisture to disperse in the soil and activate the active ingredients," Ferrie says. "Plan to scout more and apply rescue or cleanup treatments, if needed."
In northern areas where primary tillage is done in the spring, do secondary tillage within hours after chiseling. "There will be no freezing and thawing to break up chunks and prevent them from turning into clods," Ferrie says. "If they turn into clods, you’ll have to deal with them all season long."
Whatever the weather brings, patience at planting is a virtue. "Don’t feel that you have to plant just because your neighbor is," Ferrie says. "With today’s genetics, we have a wider planting window. Diversity in planting dates, as long as you don’t miss the optimum range, reduces pollination risk."