Effect of Standing Water and Saturated Conditions on Early Corn Growth • 5.10.19

Kris Young

Effect of Standing Water and Saturated Conditions on Early Corn Growth

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Heavy rainfall and flooding in the last 7-10 days have caused areas of standing water and saturated conditions within many corn fields.   Current growth stages of corn across the area range from just been planted to about the V3 (3 leaf) stage.  Heavy rains, saturated conditions and cool temperatures early can slow corn germination and early seedling growth.  Depending on the duration and severity of these growing conditions and the stage of corn growth, damage can occur to small corn plants and can potentially have season-long negative implications as well. 

Corn Growth Prior to Emergence

Under saturated conditions, corn is most susceptible to death during the germination and emergence stage.  A prolonged period of saturated soil can reduce germination and emergence due to lack of oxygen. Seeds will imbibe water and swell but will struggle to develop into a seedling due to the lack of oxygen in the soil.  Extended saturated conditions will eventually cause seeds to die and rot.  Heavy rains causing surface compaction can also compound this problem by sealing off the surface reducing oxygen flow down to the seed.  In addition, extended wet weather conditions can delay the seed germination process causing uneven plant emergence.  Late-emerging plants usually remain under-developed and get out competed for light and nutrients by neighboring plants with normal emergence reducing overall yield potential.  (Figure 1). 

Corn Growth After Emergence

Long periods of standing water and saturated conditions can also negatively impact corn growth after emergence.  Once corn emerges, it has more capacity to withstand saturated conditions compared to before emergence due to its ability to photosynthesize.  However, saturated soils during these stages can inhibit root growth, leaf area expansion, and photosynthesis because of the lack of oxygen and cooler soil temperatures.  Yellow leaves indicate a slowing of photosynthesis and plant growth (Figure 1).  Leaves and sheaths may turn purple from accumulation of sugars if photosynthesis continues but growth is slowed.  Corn plants can recover with minimal impact on yield if the plants stay alive and conditions return to normal fairly quickly.

Young corn plants can tolerate only a couple of days of full submersion of standing water. Before V6, when the growing point is at or below the soil surface, corn can survive only 2-4 days of flooding. Chances of plant survival increase dramatically if the growing point is not completely submerged or if it is submerged for less than 48 hours. After 48 hours of soil saturation, soil oxygen is depleted and critical plant functions (photosynthesis, water and nutrient uptake) can become impaired. Thus, young corn plants are more susceptible than corn beyond the V6 stage when the plants are taller and the growing point is above the surface. Research has demonstrated yield reductions from early-season flooding ranging from 5% to 32% depending on soil nitrogen status and duration of flooding.

Figure 1.  Yellowing of corn plants (left) and uneven corn stands (right).  

Injury Assessment of Seed and Young Plants

  • Once rain ends and fields begin to dry, allow 3 to 5 days to evaluate seed and plant health.
  • For corn not yet emerged, evaluate the appearance and integrity of the seed.  Seed that is discolored and soft is most likely starting to rot and will have a rotting odor when broke open. 
  • For corn that has emerged, new leaf growth is a sign the plant is still functioning.  If new leaf growth is slow to develop, evaluate the health of the growing point located in the crown area of the plant just below the soil surface.  A healthy, functional plant should have a white to cream colored growing point (Figure 2).  A growing point that is darkening or appears soft may be damaged and result in plant death (Figure 3). 

Replant Considerations

  • The decision to replant or not can sometimes be difficult and must be made on a field by field basis.
  • Factors to consider:  sufficiency of final plant stands to reach expected yield level, replanting costs, available window of weather to replant, lateness of replanting, options available to destroy existing stand and availability of specific replant hybrid.
  • Replanting seed in an insufficient stand of small corn plant in order to thicken the stand is not recommended.  Plants emerging from replant seed will be much smaller than the existing stand and will fail to develop normal size ears while robbing resources away from the taller, neighboring plants.
  • Planting depth can be a factor for seeds surviving a saturated soil.  Seeds that are slightly “higher and drier” are able to get some oxygen and survive.  This may explain why some fields survive better than others, especially fields planted on the same day.  Planting depth should be adjusted on a field by field basis depending on conditions such as soil type, drainage, soil moisture and weather forecast.   

Potential Disease Problems Caused by Early Saturated Conditions

  • Seedling Blights – Most common is Pythium.  Other diseases are Fusarium and Rhizoctonia.  Poorly drained areas are at most risk for these diseases.  Today’s seed treatments help immensely with controlling these diseases.  However, prolonged periods of extreme wet and cool conditions can still weaken the seed treatment barrier allowing infection to take place.      
  • Crazy Top Fungus and Common Smut  – Infects young corn plants damaged by flood waters.  Predicting damage from these 2 diseases is difficult until later in the growing season.
  •  Late Season Root and Stalk Rots – Impaired root development and damage to the crown area early can reduce stress tolerance of plant and make it more susceptible.

Sources:

Purdue University.   https://www.agry.purdue.edu/ext/corn/news/timeless/PondingYoungCorn.html

Kansas State University.  https://webapp.agron.ksu.edu/agr_social/eu_issue.throck?eu_id=154

University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  http://cropwatch.unl.edu/2016/wet-conditions-favorable-seedling-diseases-early-planted-corn

University of Nebraska – Lincoln.  http://cropwatch.unl.edu/flooding-and-corn-survival

Figure 1

Yellowing of corn plants (left) and uneven corn stands (right).

Figure 2

Healthy Growing Point

Figure 3

Darkening of a damaged growing point

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