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?
Wet Soil Means Slow Growth
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.
How to Handle Soil Moisture
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. If water drains from the hole in an hour, then you have good drainage. If it takes several hours or up to a day to drain, then you have adequate drainage. If water stands in the hole for more than a day, then the ground is oversaturated to the point you will need to step in. 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, to break up compacted soil, you can till it lightly. Which one is the best option? That depends on site conditions and your available resources.
Spring Planting and Fall Harvest
Once you have a definite answer about the soil draining, you can start planning your grain planting schedule. As we mention here, the best time to plant grains varies, so even if your field is currently flooded, there’s plenty of time for the ground to dry before you have to start, depending on what type of crop you want to plant.
As you wait for the water to drain, it’s also a good time to do some other types of number crunching. 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? As you likely still have some grain stored from last year, you also have to determine how much space you will have for storage and what you estimate this year’s yield will be. We go into that more here, as well as some other potential issues for grain storage.
As for the flooding, this isn’t a new situation. In fact, it’s one farmers are becoming 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 it’s 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 higher possibility for heavy rainfall during a storm.
Over the last three years, we’ve seen those changing conditions delay spring planting multiple times. In 2018, for parts of the North and Midwest, that was due to snow in late March, while the South ended up with plenty of rain. The good news is that in each case, the delay didn’t create major problems with the harvest.
A study done by the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Extension Service found that while flooded fields had significantly fewer spring weeds than those drained in February, the “flooding did not affect crop production. Crop yields did not differ among flooded and non-flooded (fields).”
In fact, as we mentioned here, 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 can help.
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