OTTUMWA — Farmers have been waiting to plant this year. Ideally, said one expert, they’ll wait a little longer.
“He’s being patient, not planting until the optimal time,” confirmed Dawn Johnson, one-half of a farm couple in rural Wapello County.
On Friday, she said she her husband, Colin, weren’t feeling stressed out yet.
“I think it just seems like [farmers are waiting] a lot later because of last year, when we planted so early,” she said.
It really is later than usual, said a crops expert, though he agreed it looks even worse because of the unusually mild winter last year.
“By far, we were ahead [of this] last year,” confirmed Mark Carlton, soil and crops specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “We were exceptionally early planting corn and beans in 2012.”
Now, there’s reason to wait. First, last year’s mild winter was reversed this winter. In fact, the Iowa DNR, worried about nature’s production of pheasant, said this was the snowiest March in 15 years – and the coldest in 30 years.
Secondly, said Carlton, “We’re going to have to dry out. We’ve been blessed with adequate rainfall compared to other parts of the [nation], so our soil profile is full, which is a good thing. We have about 12 to 15 inches of water to grow plants, [which means] we already have half the water we need going into the season. It’s provided us with the moisture we need. But it’s going to be muddy. Too muddy to plant.”
It’s not just a question of getting the farm equipment onto the field, he said. Too much mud means the soil is full of water, not air.
“Plant roots have to have oxygen to grow. If you plant in muddy soil, root growth is going to be poor,” Carlton explained.
And despite winter officially ending weeks ago, the soil temperature is still too low.
“The soil is going to have to be at least 50 degrees for corn to germinate,” Carlton said. “At 50, it could take three weeks to grow, so really, we need soil temperatures above 60 or 65 for optimal germination. Thursday in Wapello County it was 54 degrees. And it dropped to 45.”
A higher soil temp has another benefit, he said. Farmers who have seen their corn suffer the fungal pythium rot will find that the toxin becomes inactive when the soil gets above 65 degrees. Waiting for the topsoil to dry a bit, and for temperatures to go up, is just going to result in higher yield. He acknowledges it can result in a higher anxiety level, too.
“It’s hard to be patient,” he said.
There’s a difference between the perfect time to plant and what a farmer considers practical. There have been times in the past when Carlton advised farmers that the optimum planting time would be in a few days. Then, a farmer waits — and it rains, muddying the field again so they can’t plant.
“My comment would be you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said. “In general, my advice would be to wait until the planting conditions improve. We’ve got to wait until the soil temperature is well above 50 degrees and rising and the mud in the fields has started to dry.”