By Chris Clark
Despite the late start that many Wisconsin farmers will get this spring, it is vital to delay tillage, manure applications, spraying, fertilizing and planting until the optimum time. Be patient. Wait until your soils are ready. It’s not a race, but you can give your crop a head start by getting everything right at the beginning.
As snow melts, many soils quickly become saturated and have a weakened structure. Nearly every soil type is prone to compaction and erosion this time of the year. Any areas that are already compacted will drain even more slowly. Remember back to 2017 harvest conditions, and consider if that may have created problem areas in your fields. Watch those areas this spring. It is much easier to prevent further compaction than it is to fix it.
As soils become less saturated, the microbial life, bacteria, fungi, cover crop roots and other soil life help to stabilize soil particles and clumps below the surface, reducing compaction and allowing infiltration. But as long as the soil is cold, these microbes and plants are not yet actively growing or using nutrients, so soil nitrate is prone to leaching as the soil drains.
While the fieldwork can begin once fields are dry enough, wait until the soil is 50 degrees F before planting. Planting too early will delay germination and result in uneven stands. It’s better to give the plants optimum conditions than to rush things and reduce yield potential.
So, even if your neighbor is out in the field, wait until your soils are ready. Take it field by field. When determining soil moisture levels by hand, pick an area and soil type that is representative of the entire field. Take a handful of soil from the top 6 inches and gently squeeze it into a ball in your hand. If the soil forms a ball that breaks easily with a little pressure, the soil is ready to work. Your seedbed is ready for planting when the moisture is right and there are stable soil temperatures for four to five days.
Consider using the preplant soil nitrate test (PPNT), the pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT) or the late spring nitrate test (LSNT) after planting to check on the status of nitrogen in each field, as you may have lost some nitrogen due to the prolonged wet spring. Plan to sidedress any nutrients that may be needed.
Good soil structure helps to retain plant-available water for longer periods between rains come summer time. So, for the long run, consider ways to increase organic matter in the soil and build soil health.
Key take-home tips:
• Wait to prepare the seedbed and plant when your soil is ready.
• Plan to monitor and maintain adequate fertility at key developmental stages for your crop. If you had to cut some fertilizer this year, check on crops early with plant tissue samples.
• Reduce plant stress with timely use of integrated pest management to control of insects, weeds and disease.
• Consider the future with an investment in soil health.
Clark is a certified crop adviser at AgSource Laboratories in Bonduel, Wis.