Base Cropping Decisions on Long-Term - Not One Year

Don't push the panic button on planting delays too soon.

Published on: Apr 21, 2008

What's early or late for planting corn in your area will depend upon where in the country you farm. Across the middle section of the Corn Belt, especially in the dark, rich prairie soils of Illinois, farmers like to see planters rolling by April 15. That didn't happen this year. But is it time to push the panic button and switch to a decision-making mode concerning if it's time to switch to alter hybrids, or if it's time to switch to soybeans instead of corn?

Most agronomists with a long-term perspective in the business would likely say no, it's not time to push the panic button. Historically, anything before May 1 is extremely early. But history has changed over the past five to 10 years. Planting dates have moved forward, partly because modern hybrids tend to perform best in the yield category when planted as early as is practical.

Mudding in corn isn't practical in most people's books, especially not in April. Yes, the calendar is ticking slowly but surely toward May. Local media hype in the popular, consumer driven, story-hungry media over the last few days have heightened farmers' fears. In Indiana, for example, major news outlets interviewed farmers who still have water on their ground, primarily in flood plains within the state. The focus of the story was that farmers were itching to get into the field, and becoming increasingly nervous.

Being concerned is one thing, but pulling the trigger on a decision that may come back to haunt you in the long-term is another. If raindrops are still falling and soils are saturated in your area in another three weeks, then it's a different ballgame. The story will be different, and the story you see in Corn Illustrated on the Web will be different too. That would be the time to get serious about if you should switch to earlier hybrids or consider switching crops. But hat's three weeks away yet. Soils can dry quickly with a turn of the weather dial during this time of year.

Last year's Corn Illustrated plots near Edinburgh, Ind., showed devastating results for delaying planting until May 20 or after. In a demonstration study where corn was planted every three or four days from May 1 onward, the optimum date turned out to be May 11. Prognosticators likely wouldn't have picked that as the top date. But yields fell to roughly half by late May. That's a much steeper decline than happens in most years.

What happened to the plots there last year was a severe lack of total rainfall, coupled with excessive heat, especially late in the season. The plots were on loamy soil over gravel at three feet, and they were not irrigated. Later-planted corn held on until August 1, when the weatherman dialed up the heat. Stress took its toll, and plants soon shut down, with devastating results for yield potential.

The year before, however, in 2006, conditions were nearly ideal at the same location. Rainfall came nearly on cue all season long, and the yields on those soils were as good as on many heavier soils elsewhere.

The bottom line, agrees Dave4 Nanda, Corn Illustrated consultant, is that the timing of weather events plays a huge role in yields. And the timing likely won't be the same one year to the next. So don't assume that just because planting late was a disaster in one area in '07 that it will be a disaster on your farm this year.

Hang on and hope for clearing weather soon. That's what the long-term view seems to say.