With farmers across the U.S. fighting to get crops out of fields, tillage and fall field prep is a distant second priority. As Old Man Winter fast approaches, many farmers will be left with a long to-do list come spring.
“Farmers are pretty behind — I’ve seen some postharvest work in the past days though,” says Iowa State University Extension agronomist Mark Licht. “But fall tillage is further behind than farmers would like.”
USDA pegged corn harvest at 41% for the week ending Oct. 27, down 20 percentage points from 2018. Soybeans are 62% harvested, just slightly behind last year’s 69%. With much of the crop yet to harvest, tillage and other fall field work will likely be pushed to the backburner to salvage the 2019 crop.
“If the forecast holds, and we don’t have rain or snow, we’ll be able to get back out and finish harvest,” Licht says. “I’m less optimistic about finishing up fall tillage because I don’t think we’ll have soils as dry as we need.”
Soil conditions will reign supreme when it comes to tillage.
“Really you have to be patient right now,” Licht says. “Once we get compaction by doing anything in fields when it’s too wet, it’s really hard to get rid of it.”
Wetter conditions put farmers at greater risk of compaction but fall tillage often involves risks of erosion too. Soil is exposed all winter and spring, and lighter soils are especially prone to wind erosion and moving water, which can lead to troubling ruts. Weigh the pros and cons of fall tillage, with this year’s wet conditions in mind.
With freezing conditions, rain and snow in many parts of the country, you might be limited in which nutrients you can apply. Manure especially has more limitations as the ground freezes, but volatilization and runoff could put nutrients at risk too.
“We know if you put phosphorus [P] or potassium [K] on snow-cover ground it’s a risk of moving with runoff when it melts,” Licht says. “You really want to apply that when you can incorporate it with fall tillage. The next best option is applying it in the spring when you can get infiltration rather than runoff.”
Nitrogen (N), on the other hand, is more flexible in terms of timing. While fall has its benefits in terms of time management, there’s risk of loss, and this year there simply might not be time. In addition, split applications, once in the spring and at least once in-season, have proven to help plants grab that nutrient better.
“The key for N, P and K is to avoid application on snowy ground,” Licht says.
Spring will be challenging
“When we have major delays like this that push manure, tillage and sometimes even harvest into spring, it delays planting,” Licht says. “However, spring is far away, and if we have an unseasonably warm March, we could quickly get back on track.”