For the first time in recent memory, farmers in the lower Southeast are heading into a growing season with adequate to surplus soil moisture levels. And, while it certainly is preferable to the alternative, wet conditions are playing havoc with spring planting plans, especially for corn growers.
By mid-April, only about 40 percent of Georgia's expected 370,000-acre corn crop had been planted. This compares to a five-year average of more than 70-percent planted during this same time period.
South Carolina growers also were watching the skies for clearing weather, with only about 30 percent of that state's corn being planted by the end of the first week of April. This compares to the five-year average of 57 percent.
“We do not consider ourselves to be in a drought situation anymore,” says Pam Knox, Georgia's assistant state climatologist. “Short-term moisture levels are adequate to surplus across the state with two-thirds of Georgia reporting a surplus.”
Most aquifers in the state are recharged, she adds. “Some aquifers in central Georgia still are below their long-term normal levels, but they are moving back toward normal conditions. We have adequate soil moisture, and this it the first time we've been able to say that in several years.”
Georgia farmers in the southern tier counties — including Seminole and Decatur — prefer to begin planting corn in late February and the early part of March, says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia Extension agronomist.
“But the ground was so wet during that time we didn't get started until a couple of weeks later than normal,” says Lee. “We planted a small amount of corn at about mid-March, and then the rains began again. During the period from about March 22-24, our growers began planting corn in earnest.
Until about April 4, planting was moving very rapidly.
“By the end of the first week in April, farmers and county agents were calling to find out when they needed to stop planting. For all practical purposes, we're about caught up, but we're certainly far behind the five-year average for this same period.”
Seven years of data from a planting date study conducted at a Tifton, Ga., site showed that yields began to decline whenever corn was planted after April 1, says Lee. That date would shift slightly, he adds, depending on whether the grower is in the northern or southern part of the state.
“The data was surprisingly consistent over the years,” he says. “After the April 1 planting date, we tended to lose about 2.1 bushels per day in yield. For example, a farmer with a 180-bushel yield under irrigation — if he began planting his crop on April 11 - would be looking at about a 160-bushel crop yield, with two bushels being lost on a daily basis. And we give or take a few extra days on either side of that, depending on where you're farming in the Coastal Plain region.”
Many farmers, says Lee, feel comfortable planting up until about mid-April. “County agents in the Coastal Plain have told me that many of their farmers have been able to plant their intended corn acreage. Some seed dealers have told me that some seed was returned and other farmers canceled their orders. However, they also tell me that some farmers picked up a few extra bags of seed.”
A later planting date shouldn't greatly alter management strategies for the remainder of the season, notes the agronomist.
“In all honesty, the difference in silking between corn planted in mid-March and on April 1 is only about three days. This is because the growing-degree accumulation begins to change as we get into warmer days. We've had some fairly cool nights and very cool days in late March and the early part of April. I'd suggest to farmers that this delay will have very little impact, which is fortunate. If we have a decent growing season, we should have some very good corn yields.”
Lee says he initially thought Georgia corn growers would increase their acreage by more than 9 percent over last year. “As I talked with growers and seed dealers, it looked to me as if we'd approach about 400,000 acres in 2003. But with the delay in planting, we won't see an acreage of that size. We'll probably have the same acreage as last year with a little extra added. We won't fulfill our planting intentions due to the delay.”
Georgia's wheat crop, says Lee, has held up surprisingly well despite wet weather conditions.
“We had a serious infection of soil-borne mosaic virus in our crop because a large percentage of the acreage was planted to a susceptible variety. In addition, cold and rainy weather is conducive to soil-borne mosaic virus. We haven't seen the disease in 12 to 15 years, but we saw quite a bit this year.”
Growers could see a detrimental effect from the disease in fields where it started early and wasn't managed properly, says Lee. These effects could become more severe if weather conditions turn off hot and dry in April and May.
Other than soil-borne mosaic virus, disease pressure has been light in this year's wheat crop, he says. “I expected much more septoria and rust, but we're not seeing it. Many of our farmers are spraying wheat, and that's good because septoria could come along shortly. The fungicides will help prevent any further losses.”
After a prolonged period of wet weather in March and early May, South Carolina growers were looking at mid-April before they could resume planting corn.
But, growers still have a lot of opportunity for planting, said Clemson University agronomist Jim Frederick in mid-April. “Where I'm located — in the Florence area — I start looking at May 1 as being late for planting corn. Farmers ask me what are the chances of having a good crop if they wait until May 1 before planting, and I tell them it all depends on the weather conditions thereafter, especially rainfall,” says Frederick.
In the past couple of years, late-planted corn has been better than early-planted corn in South Carolina, he says. “The late-planted corn has missed the early drought periods, and the temperatures become warmer as the summer progresses. The later you plant, the more likely it is that pollination will occur during warmer weather,” he says.
Excessive rainfall during the early part of spring, however, has caused some growers to reconsider their planting strategies, says Frederick. “I believe a lot of farmers are considering switching over to cotton. But the wet weather also has hindered those cotton growers who bed their land. The only crop that looks good in South Carolina now is wheat. Corn and tobacco are falling behind, and cotton soon may be behind.”
Another factor to consider, he says, is the potential problem if much of the corn acreage is planted in a short span of time. “Normally, we recommend that growers stagger their planting dates so their silking dates will be staggered. This crop could start pollinating all at about the same time. That could cause problems, depending on weather conditions.”