Plant Accordingly To Conserve Moisture

January 6, 2013 09:06 PM
Plant Accordingly To Conserve Moisture

How to stack the odds for success, even if drought persists

Picket-fence stands, with plants popping out of the ground within 24 to 48 hours of each other, lay the groundwork for high yields. After all, late-emerging corn plants, even if they grew from expensive seed, are just weeds. Seeds that don’t emerge, or die shortly afterward, are wasted money.

Because of the lingering effects of a hot, dry 2012 planting season, your 2013 crop requires special consideration. By planning ahead, you can reduce the risk to your emerging crop.

Conserve water as you plant. In many areas, water tables haven’t been replenished to normal levels, points out Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. While rain this winter and spring could change that, he recommends being ready to plant in dry conditions.

"Hang onto every ounce of moisture that’s in your soil," Ferrie says. "Be very careful to place seeds in moisture; don’t plant too shallow.

"If you till, your planter and soil finisher need to be in the field at the same time. If the planter breaks down, stop the soil finisher until it’s ready to go again. In 2012, I saw instances where a three-day window between soil finishing and planting destroyed the stand."

To retain moisture around the seed, make sure you apply sufficient tail pressure on the closing wheels to firm the soil above the seed. "If you use spoke-type closing wheels, which are designed  for no-till and wetter conditions, switch back to cast-iron or rubber closing wheels, or a combination, when you move to dry soil or conventional tillage conditions," Ferrie advises.

"Pack the soil over the seed trench to remove air pockets and prevent the soil from drying out before the seed germinates," he adds.

In dry conditions, be cautious with in-furrow starter fertilizer, which could burn the seed. "If you’re in doubt, shut the starter off," Ferrie says.

The right crop in each field. The planning you do before you go to the field helps determine whether a stand is lush and uniform or spotty. In every field, decide whether conditions are suitable for corn, or whether you might be better off to rotate to another crop.

Growing corn-on-corn might compound challenges lingering from 2012. "Last year taught us that water is even more critical than we believed," Ferrie says. "In addition to its obvious value, water flushes autotoxins—which are very soluble—from the previous corn out of the soil.

"If autotoxins build up because of a lack of rainfall, they restrict root growth. So you’ll need even more water than usual to grow a crop because the plants will have fewer roots.

"As planting time approaches, if your area is still running behind on annual rainfall, think about how much continuous corn you really want to plant," Ferrie says.

Something else that could reduce your stand in 2013 is herbicide carryover. Active ingredients of some products are still present in soil in areas where there hasn’t been enough rainfall to degrade them or leach them away. "Last fall, some wheat fields confirmed our fears that herbicides were carrying over," Ferrie says.

"Review with your retailer what products you applied last year and their potential for carryover," Ferrie advises. "This is not a situation you want to walk into blindly."

You can run your own bioassay tests for carryover. "Compare treated soil from cropped areas with untreated soil from fence rows or unfarmed areas," Ferrie says. "Collect soil from the top 2", and plant some oats. If problems develop with the oats, have the soil analyzed for herbicide carryover in a laboratory. You might discover you would be better off planting a second year of soybeans instead of rotating to corn."

Weeds compete with corn plants for nutrients and can crowd young plants right out of existence. Carefully plan your control program, Ferrie says. Weed pressure will increase in many fields because of last year’s drought. The absence of canopy closure led to late flushes of weeds, which produced more seed and increased the risk of resistant strains developing. "Rotate away from the herbicides you applied last year," Ferrie recommends.

Another weed issue is volunteer corn. "Many fields will have a lot of volunteer corn because of  high volumes of harvest loss," Ferrie says. "In many instances, we had small ears on thick stalks. That made it difficult to move the stripper plates in far enough to prevent header loss and ear drop.

If you checked behind your combine in every field, you’ll know where to expect unusual volunteer corn problems. "Next spring, remember what kind of corn you planted in each of those fields in 2012," Ferrie says.

"If last year’s corn contained only a single trait for Roundup resistance, you can control volunteer corn by planting LibertyLink corn. But if the seed corn contained resistance to both herbicides and you’re planning to plant corn again in 2013, you may need to find another option. Don’t forget to include this additional weed control expense in your budgeting—or else plant soybeans instead of corn."

Diversify hybrids and planting dates. As you choose high-yielding, stressresistant hybrids for 2013, Ferrie says, keep this in mind: "2012 taught us we have to consider the flowering window. Plant a selection of hybrids that flower at various times."

Last season, Ferrie observed yield fluctuations of up to 100 bu. per acre in fields with thick, healthy stalks. But some stalks had no ears.

"Tall, thick stalks resulted from good growing conditions early and late," Ferrie says. "But in the    middle of the growing season, we had two to two and a half weeks of bad weather, which caused kernels and, in some cases, ears to abort. If the plants tried to set a second ear, there was no pollen left."

A range of maturities reduces that risk. "If you plant hybrids in each maturity range from 101 to 112 days, you spread flowering over three weeks," Ferrie says. "Plant early hybrids first and  late-maturing ones last. If youplant late hybrids first, all your hybrids will flower at the same time."

Corn Hybrids

Plant several different hybrids,
and spread out your planting dates. That increases the odds that some
of your crop will avoid pollinating
during a spell of hot, dry weather later in the summer.

Test plots might mislead. Even if you planted on-farm test plots, don’t base too many decisions on 2012. Hot, dry weather prevented various nitrogen treatments from impacting yield.

In hybrid comparison plots, "last season’s yield depended mostly on when a hybrid was planted," Ferrie says. "The planting date determined when it flowered and set kernels. When you select hybrids, look at multiple test plots and consider when each one was planted."

Conserving moisture, prior planning and diversifying hybrid maturities will lay a foundation for the highest yield that weather permits. "We can’t control the weather," Ferrie concludes. "But we can increase our odds for success."

Insure Against Weather Risk

The drought of 2012 was a humbling experience for many farmers, even for Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.  "Last spring, I’d have said today’s corn genetics makes it impossible to  have the kind of yield  disaster we had in 2012," Ferrie says. "As it turned out, genetics kept yields from being even worse. But some fields were total disasters, worse than the last widespread severe drought in 1988.

"Last season taught us that risk management is critical," he adds. "No matter how well we plan and manage, nature is still in charge. We can’t control all the variables, but we can minimize our  financial risk."

Risk management, of course, means crop insurance. "But some growers forgo crop insurance, or carry only minimum coverage," Ferrie says. "They believe the money they save will make up for losses in a disastrous year, because those are rare. But in 2012, yields were so bad that it may take some uninsured growers five to 10 years to recover."

Landowners need risk protection too. For seniors living on a fixed income, a crop failure like this year’s can be devastating. "In farming today, there’s too much money involved not to insure against risk," Ferrie says.

Learn and Profit from Corn Navigator


The Corn Navigator series will focus on various sources of crop stress and how to manage the situation in order to drive corn yields and profits higher.

You can e-mail Darrell Smith at

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