Cover-Crop-3.jpg

David Groff drives a John Deere 6125 with a Kinze 3500 12-row planter in tow, planting the season’s first corn in a cover-cropped field of oilseed rape, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas, cereal rye and winter oats. Planting into a living cover crop, called planting green, could help farmers manage moisture during this wet spring, according to Heidi Reed, a Penn State Extension educator.

Pennsylvania farmers are making progress on their spring corn planting, but as often happens, wet weather has slowed things down.

“Patience is hard to come by, but it’s what we need right now,” said Jon Stutzman, a Kutztown farmer.

Stutzman, who hadn’t started planting on Monday, is not too concerned about the soil temperature, but he is worried about the soil being too wet.

His options, as he sees them, are to plant around the winter springs in his fields, or to just wait for the field to dry out.

What farmers need now is “sunshine, and several days of it,” said Heidi Reed, a Penn State Extension educator in York County.

Farmers there got a lot done last week and may have a quarter to a half of their crop planted.

But an inch of rain last weekend brought field work to a standstill, Reed said.

Statewide, corn planting was about 20% complete by Monday. That’s about average for recent years, according to USDA.

All of the state’s soils have adequate or surplus moisture, the agency said.

Fields were in a similar state at this time last year, which went on to become one of the state’s wettest on record.

Now that it’s mid-May, farmers in southern Pennsylvania will lose yield the longer they delay planting.

Still, farmers should avoid the temptation to get into their fields when they are too wet. That can cause compaction, Reed said.

Rain can also cause nitrates to leach out of the root zone, leading to water pollution and wasting money.

Farmers can reduce that risk by only applying one-third of their nitrogen at planting and saving the rest for sidedressing, Reed said.

Thanks to rainy weather, winter annual weeds are having a heyday in unplanted fields.

“Because it was so wet in the fall, a lot of folks didn’t get good weed control going into the winter,” Reed said.

Shepherd’s purse is the worst Reed has ever seen it, and chickweed, henbit and purple deadnettle are out in force.

Burndown herbicides will kill those weeds, but it’s best to start with a clean field so the weeds aren’t worse next year, Reed said.

Wet conditions aren’t all bad. They are a good opportunity for planting green, or planting into a living cover.

Those cover crops can absorb some of the excess soil moisture, said Reed, who studied planting green as a grad student.

If the fields were too dry, farmers might not want to trap so much moisture in their cover crops, but that’s unlikely to be a concern this year, she said.

Farmers who use the technique should put down extra nitrogen when planting because some of the field’s nitrogen is tied up in the cover crop.

Farmers planting green for the first time should start with soybeans, not corn, Reed said.

In Berks County, a significant number of farmers have already planted corn and soybeans, and some beans have even emerged.

In short, this year is off to a better start than 2018, said Dave Wilson, an Extension educator in Berks County.

Many fields in his region were too wet to plant on Monday, but as long as corn and soybean seeds are in the ground in the next few days, Wilson is not too concerned about losing yield.

Some of that confidence comes from yield improvements in short-season varieties, which often lag behind their full-season counterparts.

Forced to plant late, many farmers used short-season seed last year but still got OK yields, Wilson said.

Joel Hunter, a Crawford County Extension educator, also likes what he has seen from short-season corn and beans.

Compared to their predecessors, new varieties can harvest more of the sun’s energy as the season winds down.

Even if the weather stays warm well into September, though, growing degree days don’t always accumulate enough to add much growth late in the game, he said.

In late April or early May, Hunter likes to see a one-week window of good weather to get seed into the ground.

That ideal opening has been harder and harder to come by in recent years.

“I’ve been up here for 25 years, and springs are later now and wetter,” Hunter said. “The falls are later too.”

If the trend continues, dairy farmers may have to change their planting strategies, and grow more triticale and sorghum to keep their cows fed.

No matter when they get into the field, farmers can get a yield and efficiency boost from GPS-guided planters, Wilson said.

New planters can place every corn seed at exactly the right depth and spacing so that all plants emerge at the same time and grow at the same rate. The implements can also precisely apply fertilizer, which reduces overuse.

Wilson likes the “picket fence” look of a well planted corn crop because, he said, it’s money in the farmer’s pocket. A corn plant that emerges later than its neighbors in this system essentially becomes a weed.

Pennsylvania farmers aren’t alone in their struggles with the weather.

Weekly rains are causing planting delays from the Mid-Atlantic to the Carolinas, said Marty Wiglesworth, Syngenta’s agronomy services manager for the East Coast.

If the rains keep up through May — as they well might — corn growers will hurt the worst.

And compared to Southern farmers, Pennsylvanians don’t have a lot of crops they can switch to if they really get off schedule.

“You can’t go to cotton if you’re later,” Wiglesworth said Thursday from a Georgia watermelon field.

Wet weather favors soilborne diseases like pythium and phytophthora that attack seedlings, but seed treatments can help the plants survive through establishment.

If the growing season continues to be wet, farmers may see a second consecutive year of heavy pressure from diseases like gray leaf spot in corn.

This growing season might be tough, but by watching the weather and scouting their fields, farmers can still be successful, Wiglesworth said.

Courtney Love contributed reporting.

Newsletter