Welcome to the New Normal in Crop Farming

Hoosier Perspectives

Late planting has a whole new meaning.

Published on: May 6, 2013

When rains covered the state the third week of April, some with lots of acres to plant got jittery. Their grandpa would probably think they had lost their minds.

When grandpa or great grandpa farmed, late April was for hauling manure, maybe plowing. Planting corn? You had to be kidding. The oak leaves weren't as big as squirrel ears yet! And planting soybeans? Call the men in the white coats!

Even if your grandpa was more progressive, odds are he wouldn't dream of planting until May, and not necessarily early May. If he was still planting corn by Memorial Day, it was no big deal. Once soybeans came along, he would like to have them planted in May, but if he was still planting soybeans in June, that was no big deal.

So why do most people get nervous when it's raining in late April today? We can think of several reasons.

First, grandpa likely farmed anywhere from 240 to 560 acres – tops. Great granddad might have only farmed 80, or maybe 160 or 320 if he was aggressive. True, they did it with John Deere 620 or Allis Chalmers WD-45 tractors and could only pull two, three or maybe four bottoms at a time, but they had a lot fewer acres to cover. You could likely plant their whole farm in a day.

Two, they didn't have big equipment. If you have 3,000 to 5,000 acres of corn to plant, you've likely got a 24-row planter, maybe two. You may also have a soybean planter you can get rolling.

Third, you have precision technology, which allows you to plant all night long if you have enough labor to trade off. You don't need markers because GPS can 'see' for you. If you don't have this technology, this might be the year to consider it.

Technology to grandpa was reading Buck Rogers to you at night. Far-out technology was a pipeline for milking cows – most people had cows – so they didn't have to carry five-gallon cans of milk anymore.

Fourth, and it's a biggie, hybrids and varieties are much more adapted to early planting today. The corn hybrids and soybean varieties you're grandpa planted couldn't handle cooler soils and poor growing conditions. Today's descendants of those lines aren't miracle workers – they will succumb if conditions are too rough. But they're much hardier.

Finally, yield data has shown benefits over time for planting both corn and soybeans early. Farmers and researchers alike proved that soybeans can stand cooler temperatures in the spring than grandpa ever thought possible.

So it's OK to feel fidgety. Grandpa wouldn't agree, but he farmed in a whole different day. He likely invested $500 in a whole field of corn, not one acre.