How early is too early to plant?

By Heather Hetterick, Ohio Ag Net

The unseasonably warm weather may have you contemplating a jump-start on spring planting. As of March 14, there was talk of farmers already planting in areas of Illinois and Indiana.

But, how early is too early? What could be the consequences of jumping the gun?

There are the obvious things to consider like soil moisture, soil temperature and equipment calibration. But, here are five things that farmers might not have thought of that need to be considered before dropping the planter in the ground early.

1. Crop Insurance

Jason Williamson at Williamson Insurance has received many calls over the past week from farmers asking how early they can plant.

“For most of Ohio, the early plant date is 60 days prior to the final plant date. This year that date is April 6 for corn and April 21 for beans,” Williamson said. “If you plant either crop before that date your crop insurance stands, but you have no replant coverage.”

Early plant dates very across the Corn Belt and a crop insurance agent should be consulted to confirm the early plant date in the area.

2. Planting Window

As last year proved, planting windows can be very small and opportunities can be limited. Ryan McAllister, Beck’s Hybrids agronomist, said when looking at their early planting studies, it is hard to say how early is too early.

“We know from practical farm research studies that earlier planted corn generally has a greater yield potential than later planted corn,” McAllister said.

According to Beck’s research over the past 10 years, the yield potential above or below normal for corn planted March 21 to April 3 is 106%, April 15 to April 30 is 106%, May 1 to 13 is 100% and June 10to 25 is 98%.

“The yield potential is essentially the same over a ten year period of time for corn planted March 21 to April 3 and that planted April 15 to 30,” McAllister said.

The key is soil temperature and the weather the 48-72 hours after planting. The risk of planting early, though, is cold weather.

“If it gets below 28 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours prior to the V6 stage, it will kill the corn plant,” he said. “The other concern is flooding and ponding.”

3. Spring Tillage

You kind of need to balance the desire to plant early with ensuring that it is done correctly.

“Working the ground to finish drying it out instead of waiting two or three more days could haunt you the rest of the season,” McAllister said. “Lots of guys are using the new vertical tillage tools in the spring and they’re great, but you can’t use them to dry that top two inches of soil.  That minute little compaction layer is sometimes more than a seedling can handle.”

4. Plant Corn Rather Than Beans

McAllister has been getting questions about planting soybeans early, but he advises sticking with corn for early planting.

When beans emerge, their growing points are above the ground and every time they grow another trifoliate, there are multiple growing points and they are all at risk for frost injury. With corn, their growing points remain below the ground until V5 and V6 so the risk is minimal. It can receive frost and it will come back.

5. Nitrogen Management

For those who do plant corn much earlier than normal, like March or April, McAllister definitely recommends a sidedress application of nitrogen.

“Your nitrogen will be subject to a longer time of potential nitrogen losing rain events. Corn likes an adequate amount of nitrogen later than you may think,” he said.

Beck’s research found that in corn after beans when nitrogen was applied at the V3 state, which is when most people typically apply, the yield advantage was 8.2 bushels. At the V10 stage, which is about shoulder height (they used drop nozzles) there was a 12-bushel increase. When it was applied at the V14 stage, when the corn is over head high, there was a 15-bushel increase. In corn after corn the increase was even greater.  At the V10 stage there was a 21-bushel increase.

The bottom line?  Nobody knows for sure right now whether planting in March is a better idea than planting in May. McAllister advises growers to take advantage of the very early planting window by planting 10% to 25% of the corn crop. It’s not a bad risk management decision.

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