On March 26, a container-laden cargo ship hit Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, spanning the entrance to that city’s harbor, completely collapsing that structure. As a result, all shipping into that harbor ceased for an undetermined amount of time. Early estimates of the duration of the harbor closure are pegged at several weeks. Debris from the vessel, as well as from the bridge, must be removed to ensure safe passage for water traffic.

Crop Comments: Dust, yes; smoke, noBaltimore is a strategic Northeast port – a major disembarking point for agricultural inputs destined for our region, like mineral and fertilizer raw materials. Industry experts state that earlier supply chain disruptions, like those surrounding the Middle East and Panama Canal, have tended to stabilize; they expect similar resolution to follow Baltimore’s misfortune.

Eventually, growing season 2024 will happen, a fact brought to my attention by two early spring monitors in our yard. One is a half-century-old birch tree; the other is a sugar maple that was a sapling when the birch became its neighbor in 1990. I recently examined both trees for leaf bud development. Birch buds began emerging the last few days of March, two weeks later than what local botanists consider normal. The maple buds weren’t as advanced.

Maples far outnumber birches on the hillside overlooking our neighborhood. As maple buds develop, they adopt a light reddish-purple hue. This seven- to 10-day window, between birch budding and maple budding, usually accommodates some pretty serious, though final, sap runs in sugar maples. As spring continues nudging winter aside, the hardwoods’ aura morphs into a darker reddish-purple. Simultaneously, maple sap starts appearing milky – referred to as “buddy.” Buddy sap gets boiled into to darker syrup (which I call burly and enjoy more than the lighter grades).

Let’s mentally travel 4,000 miles, east-northeast, to Finland. Finnish farmers mark their own milestone event, denoting the start of barley growing season. Birches abound there, so the optimum time for planting this small grain is determined by the timing of birch bud formation. Farmers planting barley later than this milestone are frowned at by their more punctual neighbors. Growers planting before birch buds appear are considered overly eager – much like American corn growers planting before soil temperature reaches 50º F. Not only are barley growers with perfect timing respected by their peers, they’re respected by nature. Since almost one-third of Finland lies north of the Arctic Circle, very little of this nation welcomes corn and soybeans.

Beyond using birch buds as a growing season starting gun in Finland, U.S. (and other temperate-climate countries) growers still must pay attention to field conditions. Snow has to be gone and the fields in question have to be dry enough to work. Barley doesn’t seem to worry much about cold. Along with other crop advisors, I define “dry enough” with small clouds of dust, loosened by moldboard plows, disks, field cultivators, chisel plows, row cultivators, etc. Absent those little dust puffs, such worked too-damp soils typically land hard enough to cause oxygen-robbing compaction. Hypoxic (low oxygen) soils tend to invite certain weeds.

For a spring small grain management package – not just barley – add some small clouds of dust to those birch buds revered by Finnish farmers. While waiting patiently, we can ask ourselves if the soil is wet because it’s cold – or is it cold because it’s wet?

Many successful Midwest grain growers believe that rushing to plant early soybeans costs you 30 bushels/acre of corn the next year. They often tap into the wisdom of Corn Belt commercial agronomist Ken Ferrie. Ferrie, owner of Crop-Tech Consulting of Heyworth, IL, asks farmers how they can tell when fields are dry enough to avoid creating compaction layers at planting. He answers that some farmers use the “dust flying in the fields, let’s plant” approach. Others watch neighbors, taking their planting cues from them. According to Ferrie, the best decision-making tool is ribbon testing your own fields.

This simple test involves digging down one to two inches below the tillage depth and getting a small handful of dirt. Ball up the soil in your hand, seeing if its moist enough to form a ribbon between thumb and forefinger. If a short ribbon does form, you will create a compaction layer in the area just sampled. If it’s dry enough that you can’t make a ribbon, then you’ll only cause what he calls a density layer, which is desirable.

Quoting Ferrie: “The ribbon test is always a good practice for evaluating soil moisture. It’s most important when you use horizontal tillage and work the soils four to five inches before planting. Ninety percent of the compaction issues I deal with in July service calls come from the first pass made in the spring.”

He stressed that if you rush the field to plant soybeans early, you could achieve a yield boost, but costs you incur – creating compaction layers – may outweigh yield benefits. “If your plan for next year is to go no-till – or one pass and plant – in corn or bean stubble, you must now add the cost of chiseling and leveling for planting to the cost of these early beans,” he said.

Ferrie added, “If you ignore it – and many of you will – and plant on that compaction layer, you could sacrifice 25 to 30 bushels per acre in corn yields; that expense needs to be charged against this year’s early planted soybeans.”

Compacted soils likely interrupt percolation, become hypoxic and fall short on soil biology – problems causing the yield losses just mentioned. Sacrificing future corn yield for present soybean yield is another case of kicking the economic can down the road.