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Planting season off and running

But conditions are great for potential slug damage, especially in no-till fields.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

May 13, 2024

6 Min Read
Corn emerging in field
CORN IN THE GROUND: Corn in this field off Route 419 near Lebanon, Pa., is emerging nicely. Although April was cold and wet, early May has provided enough warm days for growers to get planters rolling. Photos by Chris Torres

There weren’t many dry, sunny days in April. But just a few days of hot, dry weather can turn things around in a hurry.

“We were very cold early on. However, the last week and a half, two weeks, have been really pretty much ideal planting conditions,” says Jonathan Rotz, a Corteva agronomist covering south-central and southeastern Pennsylvania.

The most recent USDA Crop Progress Report shows 23% of corn in Pennsylvania in the ground, ahead of the five-year average of 14%.

In Maryland, 51% of the corn is in the ground, ahead of the state average of 33% for this time of year, and 24% of soybeans are planted, also ahead of the five-year pace.

Wheat is 65% headed. The average is 32% heading this time of year.

Growers in Ohio are also ahead of schedule with 26% of corn planted, ahead of the 12% five-year average, and 20% of soybeans are planted, ahead of the 10% average for this time of year. Wheat jointing is at 92%, also ahead of the five-year average.

In Michigan, 16% of corn is planted, which is about average, while 13% of soybeans are planted, also about average. Sugarbeets are 75% planted, ahead of the 62% five-year average.

Stubborn cold in New York

Of the 500,000 acres being scouted by the Western New York Crop Management Association, Dave DeGolyer, executive consultant, estimates that about 15% of corn has been planted. “And that’s being generous,” he says.

“Cold and rain have really hung on up here,” he adds, although well-drained fields are more likely to have been planted first.

Many farms across the state have shifted to earlier soybean plantings, with many producers planting beans last week.

Winter wheat has emerged from its winter slumber in fairly good shape, and DeGolyer is hopeful for great yields again this year. “We had record yields last year,” he says. “It looked rough last year, but it recovered nicely. Some growers averaged 100 bushels an acre last year.”

Unlike areas farther south where double-crop soybeans after wheat are common, New York has a shorter growing season that makes it a challenge to do this. DeGolyer says some farms will do a warm-season grass such as sorghum sudangrass, or sow another cover crop before next year’s corn.

Forages are being harvested, with some growers taking off winter triticale. Heavy grass fields will come after that, while first-cut alfalfa usually gets cut at the end of May.

Check emergence

“Guys were looking forward to a little bit of the rain just to get some stuff softened up, as there was some hard ground to get planters in, but overall it has been really, really pristine,” Rotz says.

Many growers he works with have bought into the idea of planting soybeans early — the idea being that planting beans early offers a yield advantage because soybeans are a lot more forgiving than corn.

“The earlier you go, corn tends to be kind of yield neutral until you get later in the season and as you get into mid- to late May,” Rotz says. “So, because of that, guys have really started to flip to where they're definitely going to be planting both early. But even to some extent, rolling with soybeans first for a little bit, if it's not perfect conditions for corn, is actually a good idea.”

Even so, the corn that’s in the ground has quickly emerged. Rotz credits warmer soil temperatures, partially the result of the warmer-than-normal winter.

“And along with that, when we can get that quicker emergence, we tend to have better uniformity and uniform emergence, which is one of the beginning parts on the whole yield side,” he says.

But no two farms are the same. It’s a critical time to look at emergence to see if the planter has done its job correctly and, if not, to make changes for fields that haven’t been planted yet.

“If it is aboveground, one of the first things, even at the spiking stage, I'll do, or I’ll encourage others to do, is to actually look at how uniform those spikes are, and that's really indicative,” Rotz says.

If plants aren’t spiking yet, do a little digging.

“The easiest way that I know to do it is to look for your planter mark, and then actually take like a flat-bottom spade and dig down just a few inches off that row — like 3 to 4 inches to the side — and just slowly pull back,” he says. “And as you do that, it'll almost pull apart where that planter furrow was. And you can see where that seed is down in that furrow. It's a really quick and easy way to check on uniformity of planting depth. It's also a quick way to look at root health.”

Flag trouble spots

Pinging a location using GPS or tagging photos with coordinates is a good way to know what’s going on. Having some orange flags and a Sharpie on hand is a good idea, too.

“For instance, if you observe some things that you thought were maybe off a little bit prior to actual spiking, you know, make that geotagged reference, but also toss a flag there,” Rotz says. “It's super simple to just walk right back to it a few days to a week later to see if that really came true, once that stuff comes through the surface.”

A close up of corn plants emerging from soil

“The only concern that I have right now is this is perfect slug weather, and that's not something that's across the entire nation, but in in the geography that I cover, slugs are truly a four-letter word and everybody's afraid of them,” Rotz adds.

No-till fields can create a good habitat for slugs, and young, growing corn and soybean plants can be their smorgasbord.

The Pennsylvania Slug Project, funded by the Pennsylvania Soybean Board, tracks slug populations weekly across the state and posts updates online. Slug infestations can be potentially devastating. In 2021, slug infestations caused many growers in the southeast part of the state to replant crops.

Penn State Extension recommends planting at the appropriate soil temperature to allow for faster germination and seedling growth. Also, ensuring good furrow closure is crucial, as this will prevent slugs from easily feeding on seeds and seedlings.

Scouting is recommended using traps. Baits can be used as a rescue treatment, and Extension recommends using a bait when more than two slugs are caught and severe slug feeding damage is seen.

Slugs are mollusks, so insecticides are not effective, and they can knock out beneficial pests that could provide some control. These slimy creatures will eat almost anything but tend to like soybeans and brassica cover crops best. Corn is only an option when there is nothing else to eat.

Metaldehyde-based baits can be used, but they are often not economical and can be washed by heavy rain.

Some producers have controlled slugs by spraying crops at night with a nitrogen solution that acts as a poison and will burn the critters. A common approach is to use a 30% urea-based nitrogen solution, mix with an equal amount of water and apply at 20 gallons an acre. This should be repeated a few nights in a row for good control.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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