Last year, I read in a farming publication about an old saying that over their career, farmers get only 40 chances to get planting right. Of course, that is a very arbitrary number – it depends on when you start, when you finish, and if you get interrupted somewhere midstream. I think my Dad probably has more like 60 planting seasons under his belt – but who’s counting?
I mulled it over a bit while we were waiting through the rain storms and the cold spring weather that made us twitchy throughout 2017, and I’m thinking about it again through the very different spring of 2018.
I’m a firm believer in the principle that “if you can measure it, you can manage it”, a principle, which interestingly enough, has been around since the 1500s. There is some debate about who actually wrote it down for the first time, but there must be something to it if people are still using it as a decision- making tool.
As such, I keep track of a lot of numbers. In farming, there are so many variables – trying to get things right and make better decisions is complicated business. Keeping track of numbers is easy. Getting them in a form that helps make those decisions better… not so much. But I really like looking at numbers over time and seeing how things change, are there patterns, and what we can do to make things better.
It is well understood that generally, an earlier planting date, if the field conditions are right, will have a positive impact on yield. But so many other factors come into play – it is also good to remember that we aren’t sunk just because the planting date is a bit later. Moisture through-out the season, temperature, and frost of course, all play a crucial role. A couple of years ago, we had our crops planted early and thought we were golden. Then we got a late frost. We watched the corn closely for a while and it all survived. But a lot of people did end up replanting because the frost killed the growing point on that corn. And what impact did that late frost have on yields on our corn that did survive?
I did a very quick summary over the past seven years of planting corn and compared the planting dates to yield. 2012 saw our earliest planted corn during that period. We started on April 26 and finished on April 30. That year also ranked fifth lowest for yield. On the other side of the coin, 2017 was our latest year to get planting under way. We really got started on May 13, finishing on May 18 and had our best corn yield ever.
These results were not just on our farm. Provincial averages show that most Ontario farmers had late planting dates, but also enjoyed very good yields. The 2017 Corn Seasonal Summary published by Field Crop News (http://fieldcropnews. com/2018/01/2017-corn-seasonal-summary/) shows that heavy rainfall in early May delayed planting into mid-May in most areas of the province. In southwestern and eastern Ontario, 80-90 per cent of corn was planted between May 14 and May 20. In spite of the later planting dates, “Agricorp reported that 86 per cent of Agricorp insured acres had been reported with an average yield of 185 bu/ac. This compares to a 10-year average yield of 170 bu/ac for these same growers. The current 10-year average grain corn yield for Ontario as a whole (2007-2016) is 155 bu/ac.”
Most farmers I’ve talked to recognize that the above-average temperatures in September really saved us in 2017. Another factor that helped with both yield and quality was that Western Bean Cutworm had a much lower impact on us than it did the year before. I had been trapping those moths for a couple of years and had a bit of a panic when I discovered over 300 in my trap the first time I counted. I was thinking of spraying – but then when we couldn’t find any egg masses on the leaves at all, changed that decision and decided not to spray either insecticide or fungicide. Vomitoxin levels across the province proved to be much lower than the year before, with 86 per cent of samples testing below the 2.00 ppm threshold.
With all the late ice storms and cold, wet weather, 2018 marks another late planting spring. My turkey-hunting family members tell me that even the turkeys are behind this year. As I looked over my records on our rainy day break, I can see that this year is only slightly ahead of last year for planting. But my friends to the south haven’t even got a seed in the ground yet as rain keeps pounding down on that heavy clay soil that takes so long to dry out.
So while we always try to get the corn planted as early as possible, when we do have a bit later start, I remind myself that every year isn’t like 2014 – where it took us almost three weeks to get the corn planted. Then the cold wet weather continued into December, leaving us with our lowest yields in years. There is a lot of weather yet to happen in this 2018 growing season – and planting date is just one factor that we can’t control anyway. Good luck to everyone as we wait and see how 2018 will shake out. ◊