Today, in America’s agriculture industry, we look to push the limits on every input we can to maximize the return on investment and simplify our operations. The fact is there is simply not enough margin in a crop or hours in a season to do much less. However, there are costly consequences associated with running that close to 100% capacity. Figuratively speaking, if the train begins to derail, you could spend the rest of the year trying to get everything back on track. The adoption of reduced tillage farming and early planting are just a few reasons today’s hybrids are faced with challenging conditions. Although, if managed correctly, these practices can be implemented without impacting final yields and thus, increase the overall efficiency of a grower’s operation. Let’s discuss some of the causes of germination and emergence issues, and management tips that can improve your planting methods this year.
1 Soil Temperature — Low soil temperature is one of the main reasons we see delayed emergence in our crops. Just like any other living organism, plants have ideal temperature ranges in which they exist and grow. If those minimums are not met, cell growth and division will not proceed, which causes germination and emergence to be prolonged.
2 Soil Moisture — Similar to soil temperature, plants require an ideal range of moisture levels in order to germinate and grow effectively. If the soil is too dry, the seed will remain inert and not swell or germinate. If it’s too wet, the roots and shoots may not get enough oxygen for their growth and metabolism.
3 Seed-to-Soil Contact — In order for a seed to sprout and begin its life cycle, it must have access to everything it needs. For this reason, it is crucial for the seed to maximize its contact with the surrounding soil so that nutrients and moisture can be transferred through the seed coat and into the young embryo.
4 Soil-borne Pests — Insects and diseases have the potential to delay or terminate germinating crops. While seed treatments have been developed for many crops to help combat some of these pests, but in other cases pest pressures can be high enough to cause significant losses or delays.
5 Uneven planting depth — Proper planting depth is essential to starting a crop off on the right foot. A seed that is too deep has to utilize all of its kernel energy to reach the surface and is prone to falling prey to adverse conditions from its extra time in the soil. Too shallow, and a seed could become a victim of the soil drying out or inadequate establishment of its structural root system.
6 High Rate/Improper Starter Fertilizer — Starter fertilizers can cause dramatic problems if one does not consider the sensitivity of the crop, the proximity to the seed, and the caustic potential of the products used.
Now that we are familiar with some of the causes of seedling germination and emergence issues, let’s take a look at some ways we can manage our planting operation to reduce the risk of these early season problems.
1 Residue management — Regardless of your stance on tillage, we are all interested in the proper dispersal and breakdown of residue from a previous year’s crop. Creating a suitable seedbed begins at harvest the previous year. Evenly chopping and spreading stalks and properly setting planter row cleaners will ensure proper decomposition and management of residue in the seed row.
2 Variety selection — If you are consistently the first one in the county to start planting, consider choosing varieties that are more suited to hearty early season characteristics. Cold germination scores, emergence and early season vigor ratings, and disease and insect resistance are all features that a grower should consider when selecting a variety that will be going out first on the farm.
3 Planter settings — As simple as it seems, make sure that the planter is level both front to back and side-to-side. This will ensure that mechanical operations are functioning correctly.
4 Seek advice from the soil — In the past, calendar dates were used to determine many farming operations. Today, most growers are moving away from that notion and relying on the field conditions to advise them on planting times. If the field is too wet, too dry, or too cold, it is best to not test the limits of seed viability and put the whole crop at risk.
5 Scout/treat field for weeds and pests — Early in their life cycle, crops are susceptible to being outgrown by weeds and attacked by insects and disease. Discovering and subsequently clearing a field of these nuisances can lead to a more energetic emergence and early growth of a crop.
6 Manage for compaction — Highly compacted areas in a field generally produce stunted, nutrient deficient plants due to the roots being unable to penetrate the high bulk density soil. Limiting traffic to specific areas using GPS and reducing the time spent in the field during wet conditions can lessen the number of acres where these conditions persist. Also, utilizing deep tillage and a variety of cover crops can go a long way to improve ground that has been overly compacted.
7 Soil testing — Soil testing is the key to determining what the needs of the crop are so that nothing is lacking from the time the planter runs through the field. It is also a cheap and effective way to save money on fertilizer inputs if it is determined that the soil already meets the demands of the intended crop.
8 Planter-time/starter fertilizer — As explained in the earlier section, planter-time or starter fertilizer can be risky depending on how and what you apply. However, because soils early in the season tend to be cold, nutrients tend to not be as readily available and root growth proceeds slowly. To help relieve these issues, a grower can utilize products that are specifically designed for in-furrow placement. Another tool a grower can use to minimize risk is to limit the fertilizer’s proximity to the seed so that the soil can act as a buffer to make the application less precarious. Y-knot splitters, 2X2, and over the row surface bands can all achieve that small separation while still providing the necessary nutrients early in the season.
Sometimes, it seems like a monumental task when faced with planting hundreds or even thousands of acres in a finite time span. However, planning ahead and careful management of each input will yield clean, straight rows and a happy harvest.