With 55% of his acres left unplanted in 2019, one might have expected Matt Foes to put up his feet and take a vacation.
Instead, the Sheffield, Illinois, farmer rolled up his sleeves and spent a large part of this summer working a year ahead.
“I went into the summer expecting that this fall would be no different than the spring — so really challenging,” said Foes. “So I spent the summer preparing those fields for 2020: I sprayed herbicides, tilled to smooth out seed beds and seeded cover crops.” In the weeks and months to come, he will tackle field repairs, cover crop termination, weed control and fertility management on those same acres, all before planting his actual crop — or so he hopes.
“If I learned anything from 2019, it’s that you aren’t guaranteed to get an opportunity to do anything you’ve planned,” he said.
Farmers reported a record number of prevented planting acres this year after a historically wet, challenging planting season. By late August, USDA’s Farm Service Agency estimated that nearly 20 million acres were left unplanted. And of those acres, more than 4.7 million acres were seeded to cover crops — more than double the previous year.
As these farmers head into 2020, much remains to be done. Fields that sat fallow could face nutrient and microbe deficiencies, as well as weed problems. Cover crops need termination and management plans, and many fields are in need of repairs from equipment and water damage.
Here’s a look at the top priorities for prevented planting acres this fall and winter:
1. HAVE A PLAN FOR COVER CROPS
Foes counts himself among the unplanned cover crop experimenters of 2019. “I’m completely new to cover crops,” he said. “This is a learn-as-you-go situation — we’re calling an audible.”
Moving quickly in late July, Foes broadcast and tilled wheat seed on all the acres destined for a soybean crop in 2020. On the acres destined for corn, he bought discounted leftover treated soybean seed from a seed company and planted the soybeans as a cover.
Like many, he now must navigate how to manage them before planting season rolls around. Growers have a handful of options. First, they can let certain cold-sensitive covers (like soybeans) overwinter and die. That leaves a mat of residue in the spring to manage — and possible volunteer seed, if the cover went through reproductive stages in the fall.
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Foes was fortunate; by using a later maturity group (3.6) than he normally does, his soybeans made it to the podding stage but never produced seeds. He hopes to terminate them with tillage this fall, but so far Mother Nature has intervened with rain and snow events.
“I’m trying to avoid the ‘wet blanket’ effect on ground that is already typically wet, since 2020 will be starting with a full soil profile,” he explained. If he misses his fall window, Foes will aim to break up that blanket of dead covers with some vertical tillage in the spring.
Other winter-hardy cover crops, such as wheat or rye, will continue growing in the spring, so growers will need a termination plan — will you aim to spray it out early in the spring or plant your spring crop into a “green” or living cover?
Foes planted winter wheat that tillered out fully and grew a foot-tall canopy, but never entered reproductive stages. “It didn’t vernalize, so it won’t set seed,” he said. He expects some of it will winterkill and the rest will require a spring termination with herbicides.
Other questions remain, too. Cover crop supplies for certain species, such as rye, got pretty tight this summer, due to the high demand. Depending on the source and quality of your cover crop seed, growers should watch for weed seed invaders, surprise volunteers and even disease inoculum in those fields.
Foes used bin-run winter wheat seed, but had it professionally cleaned to try to protect his fields. “I didn’t want to inherit someone else’s weed problems, so we didn’t do straight bin-run seed,” he said.
Finally, the heavy residue or growing cover of a fall-planted cover crop can be attractive to some spring insects, particularly those who need grassy covers to lay their eggs. See more on that here.
2. WATCH THOSE WEEDS
Absent a crop, weeds grew quickly on many prevented planting acres this summer. Some farmers managed to get across those fields with herbicide applications or tillage, but weather and time restraints stymied others. Summer annual weed escapes have spent the fall sowing seed in some prevented planting fields, and now winter annual weeds are emerging.
Foes managed a pass of glyphosate and 2,4-D on most of his acres around the Fourth of July, but wet fall weather has blocked his attempts at additional weed control. He is worried about the waterhemp escapes he saw sprouting in some fields this summer.
Like many other farmers with prevented planting, Foes may have to grapple with dense weed seedbeds next season. For more details and recommendations on fall weed control, see this DTN story.
3. KNOW YOUR NUTRIENT NEEDS
Beware of Fallow Ground Syndrome on prevented planting acres planted to corn in 2020. Corn enjoys a symbiotic relationship with a type of soil-dwelling fungi called mycorrhizae that grow along its roots and help the plant absorb key nutrients such as phosphorus. When a field is fallowed or planted to a crop that doesn’t support these organisms, the next corn crop can struggle to take up nutrients, resulting in stunted, yellowed or purpling plants.
Some cover crops, particularly grass species, can maintain populations of these fungi for a following corn crop; others, such as brassicas, will not. Some growers may need to consider starter fertilizer options to help a 2020 corn crop planted to fallow ground. See more from the University of Missouri here.
Do an accounting of your prevented planting acres’ applied fertility. Some nutrients such as nitrogen (converted to nitrates), boron and sulfur are very mobile in the soil and may no longer be present if you applied them in the fall of 2019 or the spring of 2020.
Other, more stable nutrients in the soil, such as phosphorus, copper or zinc, should still be available in the soil if there was no crop planted to use them. For more details on the mobility and availability of common nutrients, see this guide from Cornell University.
Make sure you know how the cover crop you may have chosen for your acres will affect the field’s fertility in the spring. Some covers can either tie-up or release key nutrients as they grow and die, and nitrogen availability is often a top concern for corn growers.
4. BRACE FOR FIELD REPAIRS
Many prevented planting acres (and planted acres) face serious damage from heavy equipment use on overly wet soils in the summer and fall of 2019. Growers may have to repair ruts and soil compaction and do seedbed preparation later this fall or in the spring.
“We will be going through and making sure to alleviate any sins we committed this spring,” Foes said.
Watch for less obvious field damage as well, Foes cautions. His land’s tiling systems got an impromptu stress test from the spring and early summer’s heavy rainfalls. Some of the older sections failed.
“There was just so much pressure from so much water draining that all the weak points were found,” he recalled. “I’ve discovered several old clay tile lines that I didn’t know existed because they blew out from the water pressure.”
For more on field repairs ahead, see this article from Michigan State University here.
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.email@example.com.
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