by Karl H. Kazaks
STAUNTON, VA — “I’ve learned so much more this year than last year,” Jimmy Crosby said about his second year growing corn.
Like other locations in the Valley, Crosby’s farm between Staunton and Swoope has received abundant rain the past two growing seasons. Last year his farm received 25 inches from planting to harvest (though there were some nerve-wracking stretches of dry weather) and this year he’s seen quite of bit of rain, with 15 inches falling in 60 days.
“We had five-and-a-half inches in one night,” he said.
With all that moisture — plus cool spring temperatures and practicing no-till — Crosby has had to contend with slug pressure in some of his fields, despite the fact that until last year most of the ground he farms was used for pasture and hay.
Crosby plants at a rate of 30,000 individuals per acre. He estimates slug damage this year has reduced the plant population in one field to about 25,000 plants per acre. Another field — the hardest hit — is, he figures, down to about 22,000 plants per acre.
Instead of applying Deadline® (metaldehyde — the molluscicide recommended by the Virginia Extension Pest Management Guide) Crosby figured that he could replant if slug damage was too severe. Paying for replacement seed (promised at 25 percent of original cost from his supplier) worked out to cost about the same as treating with metaldehyde.
This year he won’t have to, but last year he did replant one field. Its corn population was so decimated — down to about 15,000 plants per acre — that Crosby replanted on June 20.
Of course last year’s slug population was particularly extreme. That was likely because the previous winter had been so mild, allowing a larger slug population to overwinter. What’s more, last spring — like this year — was wet and cool – “Good conditions for slugs to thrive,” said Rockingham County Extension Agent Matt Yancey.
The planter Crosby uses in his fields — owned and operated by his friend Josh Botkin — does have row cleaners on it. Using row cleaners doesn’t necessarily reduce total slug populations, but it does help allow for quicker germination and growth of plants, allowing a corn stand to better resist slug pressure.
This year’s spring rains have also, Crosby believes, affected his PSNT results. He tested 18 fields and on average they showed lower soil nitrate levels than last year. Crosby acknowledged that the decline could be the result of a variety of factors, including soil conditions and his previous year’s fertilizer program, but he also thinks the rain has caused nitrogen leaching.
Extension’s Yancey agrees with Crosby that this spring’s heavy rains likely contributed to nitrogen leaching through the soil. But that alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a low PSNT figure. Each individual farm has its own characteristics, as evidenced by results Yancey has seen from PSNTs taken from over 50 farms in the Valley. Their results, he said, are “across the board.”
This year’s cool spring temperatures, Yancey added, have also impacted the nitrogen mineralization rate, slowing down the speed by which organic nitrogen converts to plant available nitrogen (PAN). The affect of low temperatures on mineralization, he said, could contribute to lower PSNT results.
Last year, Crosby planted two varieties of corn on 130 acres. This year, he planted 10 varieties on 240 acres.
“I’ve learned so much about hybrids and genetics,” he said.
He’s even doing a field trial, growing twelve rows each of two varieties side-by-side.
This year he also planted a few corn plants in pots in his family’s greenhouse on February 1. (They had reached black layer by early July.) The idea was to test how plants respond to different rates of nitrogen.
The greenhouses on Cros-B-Crest Farm — the name of the family homestead — are used to grow wholesale annual flowers and vegetables. Jimmy’s father Harry oversees the nursery operation. Jimmy participates too.
He can be available for the nursery work in the spring thanks to his friend Botkin. Botkin has a manure spreader, a no-till planter, and sprayer, so Crosby contracts him to spread litter from the farm’s two poultry houses (the Crosbys recently switched from growing turkeys to growing chickens), to plant, and to fertilize.
Crosby is the fifth generation of his family to live and work on his family’s farm. He grew up working on the farm then went away to school.
When he came back, he proposed to his father, “Why don’t we plant some corn?”
So the family took back 190 acres of land they had been leasing to someone who ran cattle and made hay. That’s the ground Crosby now farms, along with some rental ground.
The hilly terrain, in Crosby’s mind, demands no-till.
“With the rain this year I can’t imagine how much topsoil we would have lost if we weren’t no-till,” he said.
He also appreciates the value of cover crops — both to mitigate soil erosion and for weed suppression. Last year he planted rye.
Crosby keeps a close gauge of his soil quality. He knows his soils have “poor pH and poor CEC,” but he’s working to improve that. “I think it takes a long time to get a good understanding of soils,” he said.
This fall he intends to lime, and he’s even thinking of deep-tilling some of his fields to get at a suspected hardpan.
“There are so many options, so many alternatives,” he said.
Right now Crosby is thinking about what cover crop to use this fall, what hybrids to use next year, and whether and how much to rotate. Next year he expects he’ll grow at least some soybeans.
“I’m all the time trying to think about what’s next.”
by Karl H. Kazaks