It was April 23, 2013, and another 2 inches of rain poured down on our shop roof. We didn’t have one acre planted of corn or soybeans, and all we could do was sit in our break room and wonder how we would ever get the crops in the ground.
We were anxious to plant corn, because yields historically start decreasing each day after May 15 in our area. I remember asking my dad, “Is every spring this stressful?”
That was my first year back on the farm, and I was responsible for getting corn planted. We finished planting — and replanting — both corn and soybeans in mid-June. We only had two days in March, two in April and three in May when it was even possible to not get stuck in the mud.
We talk about windows of opportunity on our farm — for spreading manure, seeding cover crops and, especially, baling hay. Typically, we have three-hour windows in an afternoon when hay is dry enough to bale. The window of opportunity in 2013 for planting was more like a crack that opened once every couple of weeks. But in the days we could be in the field, we were able to get a lot accomplished.
There’s no guarantee for avoiding stress at planting season. Here’s what’s worked for us:
Planting early. My dad has favored early planting since he began farming in the late ’60s. For my dad, only two in his 49 years of farming did planting early not pay: 1968 and 2013. In 1968, Dad worked the ground wet, planted and the ground crusted over, so he had to replant. In 2013, the later the corn was planted, the better it yielded.
In the other 47 years, or 96% of the time my Dad has been farming, early planting has paid. Planting early translates to an earlier soybean canopy, more growing days and corn pollination before extreme heat. Early planting leads to early harvest and usually better cash basis levels. As a result, we typically try to start planting corn in late March and soybeans soon after.
Planning ahead. You can’t plant early unless you plan ahead. Planning involves spending time on seed, fertilizer, chemical, planter and fieldwork decisions. We buy seed early and receive shipment in February.
But a full shed of seed doesn’t mean much if you don’t know where it will be planted. I spend time during the winter deciding which varieties, treatments and populations will be planted on each farm, so there is no delay when it comes time to fill the seed tenders.
Dry fertilizer applications are made in fall or early spring. We split nitrogen applications, but apply fall anhydrous on cornfields that we historically plant first. Fall burndown eliminates the need for a spring pass. Both corn and soybean planters are prepped for planting during winter. When it’s time to plant that first field of corn, all we need to do is field-cultivate and then we are ready to plant.
Equipment options. I’m a fan of renting equipment as needed. We saw early on in 2013 that it would be difficult to get crops in the ground, so we rented an extra planter. It cost $12 per acre, but it let us get twice as much done in a spring when we only had seven days for planting before June.
Purdue ag economist Mike Boehlje and other experts would argue we would have achieved the same result by running operations 24 hours each day. In theory, they are correct. In reality, our labor constraints only calculate daytime operations. We need to sleep, and I selfishly don’t want anyone else doing one of my favorite jobs, which is planting corn.
Planting doesn’t have to be stressful. Planning ahead, planting early and finding additional equipment solves many problems. Early-season management decisions have helped us streamline operations so we can capitalize on small windows of opportunity that Mother Nature presents.
Cox farms with father Ethan in White Hall, Ill.
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Penton Agriculture.