Plan for Contingencies

You may not be able to control the weather, but you can certainly put in place contingency plans to prepare for different weather conditions. In fact, most planting problems stem from a failure to adjust practices and equipment to fit soil and weather conditions. 


Poor stands often result from failing to adjust equipment to fit soil conditions. Adjust row cleaners, closing wheels and down pressure from field to field.

By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation and Machinery Editor

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."

What if it’s wet? Unless you own a crystal ball, you need a plan for wet weather, too. "Don’t mud a crop into cold, wet soil unless you’re running up against the crop insurance date because of prolonged cool, damp weather," Ferrie says.

Most often, you’ll have soil that, while fit to plant, is on the wet side. "In marginally wet conditions, the biggest problems I see are carrying too much down pressure on row units and being too aggressive with row cleaners," Ferrie says. "That makes it difficult to close the slot. If you back off down pressure and let up on the row cleaners, you’ll often find that a field that seemed too wet to plant will plant nicely."

Worries about maintaining seed depth are what make farmers too aggressive with down pressure. "That gets people in trouble in marginally wet conditions," Ferrie says. "With today’s monitoring equipment, you can back off down pressure and know whether you’re maintaining depth control."

A row unit functions sort of like a Jet Ski, Ferrie says. The faster you pull the planter, the more it
wants to come out of the ground, so it takes more down pressure to maintain proper depth.

"In these marginal conditions, in order to stay on top of dry soil and plant through it without moving it, you may have to slow down the planter to maintain depth control," Ferrie adds. "Slowing down from 5 mph to 4 mph is still faster than waiting for the field to dry out, so you can plant with more down pressure and a higher speed."

In marginal conditions, stop the planter and adjust row cleaners, closing wheels and down pressure from field to field, Ferrie says.

One other time you might need to plant in wet soil is when you have wet spots in an otherwise dry field. "It’s a time-sensitive issue," Ferrie says. "If you’re in danger of missing the optimum planting period, and 80% of the field is ready but 20% is still wet, go ahead and plant. You’ll have yield loss in the areas that aren’t ready, but not as much as if you miss the optimum planting window on the 80%."

If spots in a field are wet every year, consider tiling them. "If you improve timeliness over the entire field, you pick up yield everywhere, not just in the wet spots," Ferrie says.

If you can’t improve drainage in those fields, set your planter for wet conditions. "Use spoked closing wheels to close the furrow," Ferrie says. "Put scrapers on your planter’s depth wheels. Use a variable down-pressure system, so you can take the pressure off when planting through wet areas.

"Be conscious of planter weight in those fields. If you have a center-fill planter with starter fertilizer tanks, fill the hopper and tanks only partway. Keep the planter as light as possible."

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."

Is Planting Always a Struggle?

If weather is cool and wet, you might have to fight to get corn planted during the optimum window—that’s normal. But if you struggle to finish on time every season, or if you find yourself starting earlier to finish on time, you might need to re-evaluate your equipment and manpower, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. "Early planting is fine if conditions are right, but if you plant in wet soil in order to finish on time, you risk problems with stand establishment," he says.

Consider the following pinch points to determine if your planting pipeline needs an update:

Timing. How much time do you have to get planting done? Your landgrant university or seed company can tell you the optimum planting window for your locality because it varies by area.

Ferrie suggests his Midwestern clients be able to plant their corn crop in five days, when conditions are right. "Of course, those five days may not come in one stretch. It may take a month to get five days of good planting conditions, depending on the weather," he says.