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Ask An Agronomist

07:11AM Dec 08, 2012

Farm Journal experts are ready with solutions

You can find answers to your crop production questions on Farm Journal’s "Ask an Agronomist" blog. A team of Farm Journal agronomists and experts responds to questions sent to based on their independent experience and in-the-field insight. Here are four questions and answers from the blog:

Q This year we had spots in the corn field that were black and dead early, with no ears on them. What would have caused these?

A There could have been multiple issues leading to no-ear stalks. One that we look for first is corn nematodes. They could have put enough stress on the plants, in conjunction with the drought, that the plants died early. You can confirm a problem with a soil sample. Evaluate corn nematodes in particular if you’re in a cornon-corn rotation.

Some of the problem could be related to soil type. What is your ground’s water-holding capacity? Some soils are able to hold more water than others. Did you notice whether you had any pockets of ground (from the size of a pickup to a house) that had barren stalks?

We saw this problem in three places and excavated the pockets of ground. There was a noticeable difference in the soil moisture at 18" to 20" deep in those pockets. When we got to a depth of 4' to 5' under the dead areas, we were finding bands of sand or gravel in the soil. Those bands of sand and gravel restrict water from moving up to where corn roots can access it, causing a  perched water table.

In years with normal rainfall, the water table is high enough, but when it’s pulled below a certain level, as it was this year, the corn burns up. That was our preliminary finding this year.

Q Many of the farmers in North Dakota have forgone wheat plantings in their traditional rotation and are going to soybeans after soybeans for multiple years. What should they consider for soil health, disease prevention, etc., to maintain viable plants and yield?

A I would encourage farmers to entertain planting a cover crop such as rye. That will give them some diversity and complement soil health as far as soil structure and aggregate ability.

Q I didn’t have much of a corn crop this year, and the weeds turned some of my fields into a jungle. Would it be OK to moldboard plow those fields, just to get rid of the weeds?

A That’s a pretty radical option, but it might help bury weed seed that’s present so it doesn’t sprout and interfere with next year’s crop.

For plowing to be effective, you must understand each weed species that’s out there because some weed seeds need to be buried longer than others. I’d avoid plowing if you can, but if your weed seed bank is completely out of control, then that mightbe a good option.

Q I have been 100% no-till in my farming operation for 26 years. I am wondering if spreading wheat and using shallow vertical tillage to incorporate it will lessen organic matter, which, in return, over a period of time will reduce crop yields. My thinking is that anytime you bring soil to  the surface, enabling contact with the sun, you are destroying a percentage of the organic matter  in the soil.

If you believe my thoughts are correct, can you please give me your opinion on how much damage to soil structure you feel would be occurring from shallow vertical tillage?

A I’m not sure what region you farm in, and that will have a big impact on the relevance of my response.

Twenty years ago, many growers were broadcasting wheat with spinner trucks and working it in with a disk or field cultivator. The standards of emergence, uniformity and plant populations across their fields were entirely too variable for maximum yields.

Buying new or well-maintained used drills turned out to be a good strategy, as their stands improved and yields quickly climbed.

Based upon these and other experiences across the U.S., and depending on the number of acres you expect to plant on a regular basis, I would strongly encourage you to buy or rent a well-maintained no-till drill.

The operating costs per acre will be similar to running a vertical tillage tool, but I think your stands will be more consistent and soil disturbance will be reduced. I also believe that with the improved seed placement provided by the drill, you could lower your seeding rates between 10% to 20%, compared with broadcasting seed, and save money.

I don’t have any data to suggest how much damage you’re doing to organic matter by cultivating the soil with vertical tillage, but I can tell you that most wheat growers are making about twice the yields they were 20 years ago by using no-till practices. Their soil quality and organic matter are slowly increasing as well.

To read more crop production questions and answers, or to submit your own questions, go to