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Bigger, more frequent downpours and fewer days than ever to plant a crop in Illinois mean farmers must prepare, plan and adjust. Here’s what you can do now to prepare for the 2023 season.

Betty Haynes

December 16, 2022

6 Min Read
Matt Boucher standing on a planter at sunset
PLANTER: Fourth-generation farmer Matt Boucher, Dwight, Ill., uses cover crops and no-till to help manage a narrower planting window and improve soil quality. “We want to build the farm and leave the ground better than we found it for the generations to come,” he says.Holly Spangler

As the 2023 planting season approaches, farmers across the country are feeling the pressure from heavier rains and fewer field days becoming the norm.

Since the 1980s, the number of big rainfall events has doubled — and in some cases, tripled — across the Corn Belt. Those are rains that come as more than 2 inches in 24 hours, says Eric Snodgrass, atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag.

That, of course, translates to fewer days in the field. Snodgrass says data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that since the 1980s, farmers have lost five workable field days in April and May. This is a reality that many farmers see playing out on their own fields every spring.

“The reality is that we are almost always reactionary to what the weather does,” Snodgrass says. “We can predict with some certainty out a few days, but the main things is, when planting windows are open, we have to put the pedal down and really get it done.”

Most farmers generally compensate with larger equipment to plant quickly and efficiently.

“We kind of begin first with the reality that planting windows are always tight,” Snodgrass says. “We have to get the crop in sometime in April or May because of insurance. And if we plant later in June, the risk of crop failure increases with the risk of late-summer drought issues.”

He also cautions that the trendline data showing fewer workable spring field days doesn’t mean we’ll never have a dry spring again. There are definitely ups and downs, he says, but the longer-term trend points to more rainfall events. 

Changes on the farm

Given that narrowing window, Matt Boucher, Dwight, Ill., has already adjusted his farming practices to accommodate weather fluctuations.

“One thing we can all agree on is that the planting season is extremely variable,” Boucher says. “Every situation is different — soil types are different, the weather is different every year, and just when you think you have something figured out, Mother Nature throws you a curve ball.”

Boucher has diversified his corn, soybean and wheat operation over the years, adding several streams of income. He runs a seed dealership, owns a custom drilling business, has a trucking business, and sells meat and local goods directly to consumers via farmers markets and Facebook. Still, he feels the crunch to get it all done in less time every spring.

“One of the biggest factors is that we’re covering a lot more ground per farm than we ever have,” he explains. “As farmers farm more acres, it’s harder to plant in optimal conditions than it was when smaller farms were the standard.”

Precipitation across main U.S. corn and soybean production region chart

As a seed dealer for almost 20 years, Boucher has advised dozens of farmers with planting decisions. He says careful planning plus diligent weather observation are keys to planting success.

“We get a lot of calls when something goes wrong, and most of the time it’s a mechanical error that could have been fixed by physically checking the planter,” he says. “We’re all guilty of just wanting to get the job done, but taking 10 minutes to walk around and do some digging can make a world of difference.”

Boucher has also implemented cover crops and no-till practices for erosion control and weed suppression. He’s seen a number of soil benefits around the farm.

“Light tillage and cover crops have helped us make a better seedbed,” Boucher says. “It has helped loosen the soil up, and the ground seems to be more forgiving than when we were doing heavy tillage.”

The changes also save Boucher time and labor — invaluable gains for a small family farm.

“We’ve eliminated our spring tillage, so we just go out and plant right into the ground,” he says. “That’s meant we’ve reduced our labor need in the spring and can plant more acres in a smaller timeframe.”

Lessons from ’22

The 2022 planting season was no exception to this new trend, as farmers across Illinois struggled to get seed in the ground between rains. And as always, hindsight is 20/20.

“Early-season planting was not an option for many in 2022, but it paid off for those that took the chance,” says Stephanie Porter, outreach agronomist for the Illinois Soybean Association. “The massive amount of rain in some areas caused some to consider replant. Soybean population, seed quality, germination, emergence, vigor and seed treatment decisions could have affected soybean stand establishment.”

She says many farmers are planting soybeans earlier than ever to take advantage of more growing days prior to the summer solstice.

“In 2016, 0% of soybeans were planted by April 18, but by 2021, that number increased to 5%,” Porter says, adding the first weeks of April are technically considered early planting in Illinois.

But changing weather patterns aren’t just occurring in the Midwest.

“In South America, especially Brazil, they have seen a very similar increase — more of their rain is coming from big one-off events, followed by longer stretches of drier weather,” Snodgrass says.

What to do

Pattern tile may be your best investment for controlling soil moisture. Snodgrass recommends analyzing each field to determine whether tile would pay off.

“Consider questions like, ‘Could you see a yield benefit? Will more time in the field outweigh the upfront expense?’ ” he says.

Either way, careful planning will pay off during whatever planting window you do get. Snodgrass offers up weather advice for spring 2023:

Know the area’s precipitation history. What is the typical last spring frost date for that area, and how much rain does that field typically get in April and May?

Know the field’s soil moisture. If it is a year with increased snowmelt, the planting window will already be tighter due to poor soil conditions.

Have a consistent, reliable source of weather information. It’s important to get field-level information to monitor changes that occur over time, amount from the previous rain and what soil moisture looks like after each rain.

Start preparing early. Have seed, products, machines and labor ready to move to eliminate the risk of preventable delays.

Checklist for planting prep

Stephanie Porter, Illinois Soybean Association, and Matt Montgomery, Pioneer Hi-Bred, offer the following checklist as you prepare for 2023 planting.

In the shop:

  • Check tire pressures.

  • Check frame components for wear.

  • Check row unit components for wear.

  • Ensure row components are centered.

  • Ensure planter is running level.

  • Check individual row depth settings.

  • Adjust and align closing system.

  • Lubricate high-wear parts.

  • Check chains and other drive components.

  • Check hoses and cylinders for hydraulic leaks.

  • Clean and adjust seed meters.

  • Check spacing and wear on disk openers.

  • Order mechanical parts ahead of time in case of tight supply or shipping issues.

  • Check GPS, wiring harness and sensors on planter monitor.

  • Calibrate seed meters, insecticide and fertilizer equipment.

In the field:

  • Review pesticide management plan and have a Plan B if chemical(s) not available.

  • Review seed selection to ensure each product is positioned to maximize field productivity.

  • Review and follow manufacturer’s seed lubrication guidelines.

  • Assess which fields should be planted first for early harvest.

  • Review farm safety plan, especially pertaining to child safety around machinery.

  • Check for first aid kit and emergency contacts.

  • Keep detailed records for reference as a hard copy in case of data failure.

  • Plant according to soil conditions rather than date.

  • Be patient monitoring weather.

  • If conditions are fit to plant early, plant away.

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford , Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty won the 2023 Andy Markwart Horizon Award, 2022 Emerging Writer, and received Master Writer designation from the Ag Communicators Network. She was also selected as a 2023 Young Leader by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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