Planting corn and soybeans in a drought poses unique challenges.
After 250+ days without meaningful rain in some areas of the Midwest (especially Kansas), farmers have had to prepare to plant in soils with little to no moisture. These harsh, dry conditions have and will continue to delay planting schedules — which can ultimately lead to poor crop establishment and lower yields.
Despite these challenges, farmers can take steps to minimize the drought’s toll: limit soil disturbance, optimize seeding depth and planting dates, and diversify crop selection choices.
Drought effects on planting
Adequate moisture is crucial for successful crop establishment. Without it, seeds may struggle to imbibe water and germinate, which leads to uneven emergence and weak seedling growth.
During a drought, the upper three to four inches of soil often lack enough moisture for germination and initial crop growth. This scarcity can significantly delay planting, as farmers wait for rainfall to ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
In severely drought-stricken areas, farmers may need to exercise patience and wait for rain before planting. This waiting period helps ensure the soil has enough moisture to support seed germination and early crop growth, which helps promote a more uniform and vigorous stand.
In addition to dry, hot conditions, many farmers in drought-stricken areas have experienced high winds that further hinder planting season. Several consecutive days of wind gusts can rapidly dry out the soil surface, exacerbating the effects of drought.
The primary concern during windy conditions is the increased risk of blowing soil. Fields with light soil textures and minimal crop residue are particularly susceptible to soil erosion. When the soil is dry and loose, wind can easily lift and carry away the topsoil, which reduces planting conditions.
To mitigate the risks associated with blowing soil, farmers should minimize soil disturbance. This could mean limiting tillage operations to preserve the existing soil structure and reduce the potential for erosion.
It’s also important to minimize additional field activities that contribute to soil erosion. Any pass across the field with tillage equipment, planters, or sprayers has the potential to stir up the soil. Exercise caution, adjust equipment settings, and avoid unnecessary passes to reduce erosion.
Strategies for planting in drought conditions
To fight drought, it’s essential to adopt strategies that conserve moisture and promote successful crop establishment. Some considerations include:
Conservation practices, such as no-till or reduced tillage, can help preserve soil moisture. By minimizing soil disturbance, these practices help retain existing moisture in the upper soil profile. This promotes better seed germination and early crop growth. No-till farming in particular can be highly effective during drought periods.
Delay planting until moisture improves:
While it may be tempting to start planting as soon as possible, it’s crucial to wait for sufficient soil moisture. Planting into dry soil can lead to uneven germination and poor crop establishment. Farmers should exercise patience and monitor weather forecasts for potential rainfall that can improve seed-to-soil contact.
When farmers need to limit irrigation, they should focus their schedule around critical growing periods. To limit crop stress and get uniform stands, make key water applications at the beginning of the crop’s life, then again at ear development (V5 – pretassel). Use the majority of the water just prior to tassel, through early dent stage when plant water use is at its peak.
Adjust planting practices:
During drought, consider lowering corn planting populations, as it helps individual plants more efficiently access available moisture, which increases the likelihood of successful growth. Additionally, choose corn hybrids that have good ear flex, tolerance to low moisture and high temperatures, and the ability to increase grain yield with timely moisture.
Focus on seeding depth:
Focus on seeding depth. Adjust seeding depth to reach available moisture. If rain isn’t in the forecast, consider planting slightly deeper than usual to ensure seeds get enough moisture for germination and emergence. However, be cautious not to plant too deep: this can lead to delayed emergence and other establishment issues.
Leverage climate data and resources:
In drought-prone regions, stay informed about climate patterns and utilize available data resources to make the best planting decisions. Keep track of local precipitation records (both short- and long-term) to identify patterns and assess overall water availability.
In addition, drought monitoring tools provided by federal agencies (such as NOAA), research institutions, and meteorological organizations can help farmers anticipate potential rainfall events and adjust planting strategies accordingly.
The bottom line
- Patience is key. It can be tempting to rush planting operations to take advantage of any available moisture. However, it’s crucial to exercise patience and wait for optimal conditions. Rushing planting into dry soil can lead to poor seed germination and weak crop establishment.
- Diversify cropping systems. Consider planting a mix of crops such as corn, soybeans, and sorghum. Diversification spreads risk and helps maximize available resources. Different crops have varying water requirements and tolerances, so farmers can more effectively manage limited water availability.
- Optimize planting dates. Evaluate planting dates carefully and consider adjusting them based on current drought conditions. In some cases, later planting dates may provide higher yields, particularly if weather patterns are expected to improve later in the growing season.
- Adopt new strategies. Adjust seeding depth, pay attention to climate data, think about integrating more conservation practices (like no-till or reduced till), and lower plant populations in order to optimize your operations in the face of major drought.
Planting in drought conditions requires careful consideration and strategic decision-making. To optimize planting operations and increase chances of success, prioritize soil moisture, practice conservation techniques, and leverage climate data.
However, every farm and region is unique. Consult with your AgriGold agronomist to maximize crop potential — even in the face of drought. Together, we can navigate the uncertainties and pave the way for a more resilient and productive farming future.