The farmer on the other end of the line was planting corn. It was just a few days ago. He started talking to me like I had known him for years. This was the first time I had ever talked to him, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. I have fretted over similar situations and made similar observations for years.
"Tom, I just don't get it," he said. "I just don't get it."
OK, don't get what?
"I finally started planting at noon today, my fields are well-tiled, we're on good black dirt, and it's still plenty damp for me. Yet I've got neighbors that started four or five days ago, and some of their land isn't that far from mine, and isn't well-tiled. It had to be mudballs."
Maybe it was. But that's their call to make. If you've earned the right to farm by sticking it out all these years and getting the bills paid, I guess you've got the right to decide when it's time to pull the trigger and plant. I'll have to admit, though, some of the things I've seen this spring already makes me wonder if anybody ever reads our magazine, Website or anybody else's. Yes, it's a late spring, but just how soon do you start? And at what cost?
The temptation to start early when soils are wetter than they should be is nothing new. I remember as a young man a neighbor who moldboard plowed every fall. If he didn't leave water in the furrow in at least a couple spots in the field, something was wrong. He was the guy my dad judged when to start planting by. Dad waited until he'd been going three or four days in the spring, then he figured it was time to check his ground.
There are no magic rules for when to work soil. Yes, the calendar is marching forward. Do you accept wetter conditions May 16 than you would have April 16? Probably? Will you accept wetter conditions May 31 than May 16? Possibly. By then it will be down to get corn planted now or not at all.
I told the guy I plant soybeans for times that I wouldn't plant if the slot didn't close over them. He informed me that if it was June 1 and the soil was close to right, I would plant, whether the slot closed or not. The calendar can change one's opinion quickly.
Even Gary Steinhardt, the Purdue Extension specialist and guru of soil compaction, says sometimes there's a cost of doing business- you can only wait so long to get a crop in or out.
There's just one problem with that theory, especially with the putting the crop in part. It's like a giant game of musical chairs. The guy who guesses wrong and keeps planting wet when it stops raining- he's the guy whose crops will struggle all year long.
Oh, well. If you didn't want to make these make it or break it calls, you wouldn't be a farmer, right? It's part of the art that blends with the science of farming. After all, what is it they say, 'Farming is a gamble?' There are a lot of dice rolling around on the table this spring. Let's hope there aren't any snake eyes.