The ground is wet. Granted, you could probably tell that just by looking out over your field today. It’s been a wet winter across the United States, one that’s caused multiple floods and raised several questions for farmers. But as we look ahead, the biggest question involves spring planting. What impact will all this water have on the soil? Will farmers be able to stick to the regular planting schedule, or will winter floods delay spring planting?
Speed Drying to Plant on Schedule
As many of you know, those two questions are connected. You can’t expect a decent harvest if you ignore the condition of the soil. Unless you live in the western part of the country, your soil is soaked right now.
According to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, soil moisture stands between 95 to 99 percent for the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast as we head into March. Even in places without standing pools, the ground is simply overloaded with water and that can become a problem.
“Wet soils have a large heat capacity and considerable amounts of heat are required to raise their temperature,” says a report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Crop Management Department. “Thus, usually wet soils are cold and corn growth is slower.”
The wetter the soil, the slower the growth for your corn, wheat, or other grains. You want seeds to be planted in soil with a temperature between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold soil tends to stay around 40 to 50 degrees.
Simply put, you have to speed up the drying process if you want planting season to remain on schedule. If you lower the soil’s moisture content, that leads to higher soil temperatures, and in turn, faster growth for your crops.
Manage Soil Moisture with This Test
Before we talk about planting, we need to determine if there is a drainage problem or if the water will simply drain on schedule, given time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a test for this type of situation.
Dig a 12-by-12-inch wide hole and fill it with water. You have good drainage, if water drains from the hole in an hour. Your drainage is adequate if it takes several hours or up to a day to drain. But, if water stands in the hole for more than a day, then the ground is oversaturated, and you’ll need to take action.
How do you do that? The Department of Agriculture offers several suggestions.
“Drainage can be improved by installing a French drain or perforated pipe, redirecting the flow of water or breaking up compacted soil,” the report from the Department of Agriculture says. A French drain, for example, is a trench that you fill with gravel or rock, redirecting surface water and groundwater alike away from your field.
With the perforated pipe option, you also dig a trench, but this time you include a pipe to guarantee the water flows in the direction you want. Finally, you can break up compacted soil by tilling it lightly.
Which one is the best option? That depends on site conditions and your available resources.
Plan Your Planting, Harvest, and Storage Together
Once you have a definitive answer about the soil draining, you can start planning your grain planting schedule. As I’ve mentioned, the best time to plant grains varies. Even if your field is currently flooded, there’s plenty of time for the ground to dry before you have to start planting.
This is also a good time to do some other types of number crunching while you wait for fields to drain. First, do you plan to use all of your acreage this year? If not, how much? How many acres need to drain before you can start planting?
You likely still have some grain stored from last year, so you have to determine how much new space you’ll need for storage. You’ll need to estimate what this year’s yield will be for more accurate figures. I talked at length about potential issues for grain storage in a previous post.
Move Ahead with Confidence
Flooding isn’t a new situation. In fact, it’s one farmers have become increasingly used to. According to the National Weather Service, more inland parts of the United States are flooding each year as rainfall patterns shift.
Why is this happening? The National Weather Service says increased flooding is due to rising global temperatures, partly caused by heat-trapping emissions. As the temperature rises, the warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. This creates a greater possibility for heavy rainfall during a storm.
Over the last three years, those changing conditions delayed spring planting multiple times. In 2018, the North and Midwest received abundant snow in late March. In the South, it was too much rain. The good news is that in each case, the delay didn’t create major problems with the harvest.
University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Extension Service did a study that found flooded fields had significantly fewer spring weeds than those drained in February. But the “flooding did not affect crop production. Crop yields did not differ among flooded and non-flooded [fields].”
In fact, the 2018 harvest was one of the largest in U.S. history. For most of us, though certainly not all, as long as we monitor and manage soil moisture the best we can, and look at winter floods from a historical perspective, we can optimistically push forward.
Now is the time to think about expanding your grain storage for the 2019 harvest, and protecting your stored grain. Tri-States grain storage experts stand ready to advise you.
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