Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions
My dad used to call March “the silly season,” because farmers in our area would fill the time with make-work tasks while they waited until fields were ready to plant. For example, one of our neighbors would plant his first field in early March, just to give the other farmers at the coffee shop something to talk about. Other farmers would work over their fields one more time, something my dad used to call “recreational tillage.” The late winter and early spring were also great for auctions because bored farmers would come out in droves to bid up equipment.
This March, however, I don’t think you’ll find any bored farmers because there are so many things going on that require decisions. Let’s start with the weather. The western half of U.S. is dry, as shown below in the U.S. Drought Monitor Map found at Current Map | U.S. Drought Monitor (unl.edu). Western farmers hoping to capitalize on $9 dollar-per-bushel wheat are watching profits wither before their eyes.
Wheat prices are finding new highs primarily because of the war in the Ukraine, but it’s not the only commodity reaching higher levels; it joins corn at $6 and soybeans at $19. Drought in South America is the main reason soybeans prices are climbing, and corn prices are supported by exports and recovering ethanol demand. Some local commodity markets are even crazier. For instance, in the southeast where I live – a corn short market in the best of time – the poultry industry is bidding corn up to $8-per-bushel.
My dad would have thought farmers with time on their hands during this silly season would change the crop plans they made last fall, switching out of corn and into soybeans. The high price of nitrogen fertilizer, combined with record soybean prices, make beans an attractive option. However, most private and public crop acreage surveys are holding steady with corn at about 92 million acres and soybeans at 88 million acres. We hear field reports that say farmers are finding fertilizer supplies tight and expensive but so far, no reported shortages. We also believe farmers are sticking with their plans because of the high value they place on preserving their crop rotations. They see the loss of rotational effects of fertility and reducing pressure from disease, insects, and weeds as not worth breaking their rotation.
Agronomically in March, there are several crucial tasks farmers need to accomplish. First any needed lime, phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) applications should be made while the soil is still firm. Next, they should be scouting for weed emergence. One of the survival techniques that resistant weeds employ is earlier germination. With Roundup in short supply, farmers can nail these early emerging weeds with paraquat when air temps are above 50 degrees. Similarly, it’s best to control winter annuals in the early spring before they become a tangled mess. And speaking of avoiding a mess, in fields with wheat or rye cover crops, it’s much better to kill them too early versus too late. The perfect timing is when the cereal plants start to joint and are less than eight inches tall. Farmers should make weekly visits to their fields with cereal cover crops to catch them at the perfect stage. The spray window is often limited to three to five days.
For old timers like me, we didn’t even think about planting soybeans until mid-May after all the corn was planted. This old thinking is now replaced with earlier planting. Some bean acres will go in late April before switching to corn, then finishing soybean planting before we would have even started in the old days. The early planted beans in late April show about a four-bushel advantage over May-planted beans.
Earlier soy planting is a real thing. And it’s too early to tell if this is just “silly season thinking,” but there are river bottom fields with light or sandy soils that warm up fast and enjoy moderating air temperature protection that are going to be planted in late March. My dad would have loved it.