Praising Powder Puffs of Clay

Praising Powder Puffs of ClayWe have two early spring monitors in our front yard. One is a half-century old birch tree that I moved to its present location when it was about 10 years old. The other is a sugar maple that was a sapling when the birch became its neighbor in 1990. I examined both trees on April 4 to examine the development of their leaf buds. The birch buds appeared to have begun their emergence on the last few days of March, about two weeks later than what local botanists consider normal for the species. The maple buds weren’t as advanced as the buds on their birch neighbor situated a dozen feet away.

Maples far outnumber birches on the hillside overlooking our neighborhood. As maple buds develop, their forest adopts a light reddish-purple hue. This week to 10-day window of time between birch budding and maple budding usually frames 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. At the same time, maple sap starts appearing milky (often referred to as “buddy”). Buddy sap gets boiled down to darker syrup which I call burly and enjoy more than the lighter grades.

Leave the Northeast and travel 4,000 miles east and 20 degrees latitude farther north to Finland. Finnish farmers observe their own signature event marking the start of their barley growing season. Birch trees are plentiful in that Scandinavian nation, so the optimum time for planting this small grain is universally determined by the timing of birch bud formation. Farmers planting barley later than this milestone are considered to be behind the eight ball. Growers planting before birch buds appear are considered to be 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 (apparently), they are also respected by Mother Nature. Since almost one-third of Finland lies north of the Arctic Circle, very little of this nation is suited for growing corn and soybeans. Most Finnish barley is fed to livestock, and the rest is consumed by humans as vodka.

Beyond using barley buds as a growing season starting gun in Finland, the 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. As far as barley is concerned, cold doesn’t really matter much. Along with many other crop advisors, I define dry enough as proven by small clouds of dust kicked loose by moldboard plows, disks, field cultivators, chisel plows, row cultivators, etc. Absent those little dust puffs consisting of airborne clays, such worked too-damp soils are probably heavy enough to land hard enough to cause oxygen-robbing compaction. Hypoxic (low oxygen) soils tend to invite certain weeds. So some patience might well be a sensible crop input. For a spring small grain management package – not just barley – add some small clouds of dust to those birch buds so revered by Finnish farmers. While waiting patiently, we can philosophize, asking ourselves if the soil is wet because it’s cold – or is it cold because it’s wet?

Ag journalist Rhonda Brooks recently wrote in her online “Boots in the Field Report” expanding on this dust puff concept. Her report was headlined “Rushing to plant early soybeans could cost you 30 bu/acre of corn next year.” Brooks tapped into the wisdom of Corn Belt commercial agronomist Ken Ferrie. Ferrie, owner of Crop Tech Consulting, Hayworth, IL, asks his readers how they can tell when fields are dry enough so they can avoid creating a compaction layer at planting. He answers his own question, saying 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 using the ribbon test in 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 it’s moist enough to form a ribbon between your thumb and your 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’re only going to cause what he calls a density layer, which he says 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 receives such calls most commonly from farmers seeing compaction undermine the development of their corn crop.

Ferrie stressed that if you rush the field to plant soybeans early, you could achieve a yield boost, but the costs you incur from creating compaction layers may outweigh the 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.” Ferrie reminded readers, “If you ignore it… and many of you will… and plant on that compaction layer, you could sacrifice 25 – 30 bushels per acre in corn yields; that expense needs to be charged against this year’s early planted soybeans.” Compacted soils, like he describes, tend to interrupt percolation, be hypoxic and fall short on soil biology – problems fully capable of causing the yield losses just mentioned above. My take is this: Sacrificing future corn yield for present soybean yield is another case of kicking the economic can down the road.

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