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Drought-extended harvest last fall may aid Midwest farmers with 2021 spring planting
By Doug Schmitz
Iowa Correspondent

AMES, Iowa – The only upside of the severe drought that hit most of the Midwest in 2020 is it gave farmers more time for field work last fall, which may actually help them stay one step ahead as they prepare for the 2021 spring planting season, according to agronomists.
“The fall of 2020 was very good for getting any planned fall field operations (i.e., tillage and fertilizer applications) completed,” said Mark Licht, Iowa State University (ISU) assistant professor of agronomy, and extension cropping systems specialist.
“The caveat would be areas that were dramatically affected by the derecho, which resulted in slow harvest,” he added. “But even in (these areas), farmers are sitting pretty good.” 
Virgil Schmitt, ISU extension field agronomist in Muscatine, agreed with Licht concerning farmers who were on top of field work last fall that will help prepare them for spring planting.
“In general, they are set up pretty well,” he said. “The planting issues of 2019 are still pretty fresh in farmers’ minds, so many pushed hard (last) fall to get as much done as possible so that less time will be required in spring to get crops planted.”
While farmers have had some soil moisture recharge from post-maturity rainfall, a good portion of the Midwest still had a soil moisture deficit going into winter, Licht said.
“This deficit does draw some concern; however, the reality is that a normal spring weather pattern can very quickly recharge soil moisture back to 100 percent capacity,” he said. “Bottom line: this concern should be voiced cautiously, and conditions should be watched going into spring planting to make management and practice adjustments.”
Schmitt said whether or not farmers should do anything differently this spring depends on which part of the state the respective farmer is in – and what spring weather brings.
For example, in far east-central Iowa, soils are generally holding all of the water they can, so soils are ready to go from that standpoint, he said.
“If we have a wet spring, however, that can haunt farmers because those soils may take longer after a rain to be in a plantable condition,” he said. “If topsoil is dry at a depth of two inches at planting time, it may be prudent to plant deeper than the normal two-inch recommendation so that seeds are planted uniformly into moisture.”
According to the University of Missouri, corn can be planted to a depth of 2.5 inches on high-clay soils, and to a depth of three inches on coarser textured soils if those depths are needed to find consistent, moist soils.
“If moisture cannot be found at those depths, then plant at the recommended two-inch depth, and wait for rain,” Schmitt said.
Licht said spring planting plans should go forth as typical for most years.
“Plan hybrids/varieties that match the cropping system management practices being used,” he said. “For instance, farmers using continuous corn should still find hybrids that excel under high residue situations.”
He said planning for crop diseases through the use of seed selection or in-season fungicide should be made according to past disease pressure.
“Herbicide programs should be adjusted to account for incidences of weed resistance, as well as targeting commonly found weeds,” he said. “Sure, we may get into the spring only to find cool, wet conditions which would slow field preparation and planting. If that does happen, the tendency is to make management changes with consideration for calendar date as far as adjusting crop maturity or seeding rate.”
If spring 2021 remains dry, he said terminating overwintering cover crops early may reduce soil water use and preserve some soil water for corn and soybeans.
“A change in hybrid maturity, or seeding rate may be of value if dry conditions persist to most efficiently use available water. However, some of that means an assumption of what future weather will be.”