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Snow job

First it was record rainfall last fall. Then it was near-record snow. What’s next?

Sprayer applying fertilizer to a field.

When it comes to spring planting, the one thing that keeps farmers well-grounded is the weather. They can plan their seed choice, lay out a timetable and know how they’d like things to happen — but in the end it’s nature that holds the final say. Farmers will start planting only when the conditions allow.

In spite of snowfall amounts that are well above normal for most of Eastern Canada, along with record low-temperatures, most farmers and agronomists agree that spring usually provides enough time to get planting done, no matter what it might look like in late winter.

Rather than fretting about getting on the fields, growers should be contemplating what condition those fields might be in when they do get on them, and what the impact of heavy fall rains and above-normal snowfall may be on soil nutrients. This factor may be the one that sets 2014 apart, say industry watchers.

Remember last fall

The 2013 growing season finished among the wettest on record, with several centres in southern Ontario topping 300 mm of rain between September 1 November 11, and some hitting more than 400 mm during the same period. Added to that has been this winter with few if any “winter thaws.” This winter the snow didn’t really melt away during January or February, it just kept piling-up.

According to Keith Reid, soil scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, it’s not the amount of snow sitting on top of the soil that’s the issue, it’s how long it will take to melt. In most years, he says, soil becomes saturated as the snow melts.

“But more snow does not equal wetter soil, since a soil that’s already full cannot hold more water,” says Reid, adding that saturated soil will simply translate into more spring runoff. “We could see more infiltration and, hence, more nitrate leached out of the soil, because all of the snow is keeping the ground from freezing hard. So the snow pack will be melting at the bottom and gradually seeping away.”

Reid notes more fields are now tile-drained, meaning a greater capacity to remove excess water from the soil. On the other hand, he says that if there’s a rapid thaw, any increased runoff will also worsen soil erosion on fields that may have had some fall plowing done.

As for recommendations on how to manage conditions heading into spring, Reid cites one trait to keep in mind: patience. Whether referring to soil conditions, plowing and tillage options, or nutrient applications and availability, growers need to wait, no matter how difficult it may be.

“That’s the biggest one — waiting until the soil is actually dry before making that first trip over the field,” says Reid. “The soil is most easily compacted just before it’s dry enough to work, so the absolute worst thing you can do to the soil is haul manure because it isn’t fit to cultivate. That will create issues with shallow root systems, leading to nutrient deficiencies and water stress, because the plants cannot utilize the entire soil profile.”

Reid adds that spring plowing can work well on coarsely textured soils, although they typically show the least yield difference between tilled and no till. On soils with clay content, spring plowing breaks the continuity of pores from the subsoil, causing topsoil to dry in hard clods that won’t conduct moisture from below. That hardening will also prevent root penetration into the subsoil. The best advice from Reid is to avoid a lot of the deep inversion-type of tillage, but light tillage to incorporate residue and help the soil to warm up is OK.

From the Grainews website: Planters require attention to detail

Nutrient issues

Chart of helpful tips for planting and seeding.
Elite Eight: Planter points to remember (click for full view) Courtesy of DuPont Pioneer photo: DuPont Pioneer

For growers who fall-applied P or K, widespread risk of runoff is always there, but it tends to be minimal since most of these nutrients do bind well to the soil, and the passage of time from fall through winter has allowed that binding to take place. Reid’s primary concern with fall-applied P is that if it wasn’t incorporated, there’s a greater potential for environmental impacts.

“The nutrient we have probably lost the most of is nitrogen from fall-applied manure, particularly if it was applied in early fall,” says Reid. “This impact will be greatest with manures with a high ammonium N content, such as liquid swine manure, and less with manures high in organic N, such as solid cattle manure.”

As the planting season gets underway, Reid notes that making sure some N, P and K are applied with the planter will provide some solid insurance against losses that may have occurred during the winter. Unfortunately, he adds, if it’s a wet spring combined with a later start due to a slow or delayed snow melt, the tendency among growers will be to rush things, meaning more broadcast and less banded fertilizer. There’s a trade-off between timely planting and optimum nutrient-use efficiency but Reid contends that preparing equipment in advance means less of a need for making compromises.

Strength in numbers

The same considerations are near the top of Dale Cowan’s list: patience, compaction and fertility. The first is needed in large quantities facing a spring such as this, the second is to be avoided as much as possible and the third can be adjusted heading into the season, and later in spring.

“Patience is always key to successful planting, but it’s hard to do when the calendar says you’re late,” says Cowan, senior agronomist for Southern Co-operative Services, near Rodney, Ont. “High-residue fields may be problematic with reduced drying, and they’re prone to surface compaction.”

Compaction is a common issue, so adhering to all of the compaction-reducing practices is the standard. Reduce the number of trips across the field where possible, use flotation-tired vehicles, cut back on load weights and reduce tire pressures. Fertility issues, adds Cowan, are easy to address. Start with a soil test and apply accordingly. Remember too that fertility and runoff usually happen in parts of a field, not across the entire field.

“Look at fields that are most in need of fertility and maybe go with starters on those higher-fertility fields,” says Cowan. He echoes Reid’s comments about runoff being less of an issue for fertility, especially if fall-applied products were incorporated. “Again, runoff occurs in small areas, not the whole field. However, it’s impossible to have zero runoff. The rate at which snow melts will determine the runoff, and residue cover will slow that. But minimizing the risk with timing, placement, rates of tillage and residue are key activities.”

Winter wheat status

Winter wheat will have a tough run in 2014. Planted acres are down and many agronomists have predicted losses of tens of thousands of acres, mostly due to winter kill. Added to this are concerns that extreme cold might have damaged wheat stands. But those scenarios are hard to predict, says Cowan. It’s just too early, particularly with everything precision ag technology is teaching the industry about variability in a field. Winter kill in wheat is similar to fertility or runoff — it seldom occurs across an entire field. Instead, it’s best for farmers to wait until green-up to determine how much of a field is impacted.

“Then you can do a sensitivity analysis on what’s left, determine what yield scenarios to look at and pricing options versus burning it down and choosing an alternate crop,” says Cowan, adding that there are several different plans, depending on previous crops. “Wheat’s a likely choice after soybeans for two years. Are you going to plant a third year of soys, or go to corn? Having a contingency plan in the event wheat is not viable is also good planning. If your wheat’s contracted, can you get out of that contract? You ask that question now.”

Stand pat

Sprayer applying fertilizer to a field.Of course, the other aspect to remember with wheat is its impact on subsequent corn and soybean yields, and Tony Balkwill refers to maintaining rotations as “money in the bank.” Although he’s concerned about the effects of a shortage of patience and how that might lead to more compaction, he also believes there’s plenty of time for the planting season to provide growers with the conditions they need.

“Growers can tweak their existing practices or increase their efficiencies, but do they start changing things now? Not really,” says Balkwill of NithField Advanced Agronomy, near Brantford, Ont. “There’s still some room to work, plus there’s a lot of freeze-thaw that will take place, and that will help with compaction. My advice for the most part is to stay the course with soybeans, keep an eye on cost of production with your corn and wheat, and get some added flexibility from cover crops after wheat. You need to think long-term.”

Balkwill doesn’t favour fall plowing, although he concedes plenty of farmers still rely on it. But to him, the issue is trying to repair in the spring what might have been done in the fall.

“And it’s hard to fix something that’s broken,” Balkwill says. “On heavier ground, there are those growers who are used to working with it, but some get in there and do some serious damage in the fall and that can translate into a shortened spring.”

Another proponent of the “time is on your side” approach is Dekalb field agronomist Todd Woodhouse. “Plowing can be done in wetter conditions whereas vertical tillage options, such as RTS or TurboTill systems, need to be performed in drier conditions,” says Woodhouse, based near Elora, Ont. He adds that some no tillers are also moving to vertical tillage. “So growers need to have patience, depending on their tillage implement.”

Woodhouse also points to the growing popularity of the precision ag units, such as Greenseeker and Y-Drop technologies, noting that in a wet fall and winter combination, the two can provide different application options and strategies without sacrificing crop demands for nutrients.

“Guys can cut back on N and still get good results,” Woodhouse says, adding there are several different strategies to fit various field conditions, timing and soil types. “You can also rely on pop-ups or other starters to get as much nutrient down into the soil as possible.”

One other consideration away from winter wheat or a default to soybeans is in managing corn for those who are maintaining their acres. Woodhouse suggests that if winter causes significant delays in planting, go slow on switching to shorter-season hybrids, perhaps considering a 20 per cent push-back on the maturities.

“Guys can make phone calls and get in different hybrids,” says Woodhouse, noting that shorter-season hybrids provide a hedge against higher drying costs in the fall. “Propane and natural gas prices are up, which means the cost of drying will be expensive.”

With current corn and soybean price outlooks, Woodhouse maintains it’s better to keep costs down where possible. And try not to spend too much time over-thinking things, he adds.

Above all, say our experts, be ready to adapt to the changes that nature dictates.

“We have to remember that most farmers can plant all of their corn and soybeans in less than 10 working days,” says Cowan. “They have a tremendous capacity to get this done in very short windows of opportunity.”

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Ralph Pearce

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