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Hit The Bullseye With Early-Season Fieldwork

Excessive moisture will challenge farmers in many locations this spring and early summer. Don’t let the spring rush push you to inflict early-season damage to your soils.

With tight timeframes, don’t rush to address early-season issues.

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Widespread excessive moisture has many farmers around the U.S. entering the spring season with more urgency than normal. Many know they’ll face some challenging field conditions and could be pressed to get everything done, including early-season herbicide applications.

The spring rush has been heightened by both melting winter snowfall and heavy rains causing areal flooding around rivers throughout places like Nebraska and Iowa. With a lot of snow yet to melt in the northern Midwest and Plains, high water could be a defining characteristic of the farm landscape in many locations through spring and into summer.

Tight time and tough conditions

Row crop farmers’ to-do lists aren’t getting any shorter, especially in areas where inclement weather last fall got in the way of fieldwork ahead of the 2019 crop. Fertilizer and herbicide applications and tillage operations that ordinarily would have happened in the fall were essentially rescheduled for spring. Now that Mother Nature has spoken, the time window for that fieldwork is going to be tightened considerably in some locations. So how can you get it all done?

One way is looking at each operation and seeing what adjustments you can make to streamline the process and ensure the trips you’re making through fields aren’t doing more harm than good. Compaction can be a major problem when planting and applying crop inputs in wet conditions, putting a premium on machinery and components that can minimize compaction and help start the crop out with the fewest hindrances to full yield potential.

“Wet soils are particularly susceptible to compaction,” according to University of Minnesota Extension Educator Jodie DeJong-Hughes. “Heavy equipment and tillage implements amplify damage to the soil's structure, decreasing pore space and limiting soil and water volume even further.”

Early weed control

Compaction is just one worry when it comes to early fieldwork. A pass through the field to apply herbicide early in the season — whether before or after planting — could be even more critical than normal in a year like 2019, when water extremes could challenge the crop’s early progress. Between conditions and the tight timeframe they will likely create for many farmers in getting early fieldwork done, it may be easy for some to pass on early applications altogether. That’s not the wisest choice this year, according to Iowa State University (ISU) Agronomists Meaghan Anderson and Bob Hartzler.

“With the short timeframe for fieldwork this spring prior to planting, early weed management may fall to the bottom of the priority list for many. For those who have persistent issues with winter annuals (field pennycress, horseweed/marestail) in no-till, an early burndown treatment may be worth the extra effort this spring,” Anderson and Hartzler said in a recent ISU Integrated Crop Management News report. “Winter annuals resume growth soon after the arrival of warm temperatures, so as soon as fields are fit the weeds will be susceptible to spray.”

In order to best manage early-season weed pressures, it’s important to first diagnose which weeds may cause you the most trouble, then identify the right herbicide to apply. Applying that herbicide at the right time may be tricky in a spring rush like this year’s, but it’s important to account for both how and when you’re applying in order to get the best protection.

"Effective burndown treatments should follow herbicide label suggestions for carrier type, carrier volume, nozzle type and environmental considerations. Treatments made on sunny days with warm daytime (greater than 55 degrees Fahrenheit) and nighttime (greater than 40 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures will generally be more successful than those in cooler conditions. Check pesticide labels for planting restrictions; most 2,4-D labels have a 7-14 day planting restriction for corn or soybean following 2,4-D application," according to Anderson and Hartzler. "The use of an effective early burndown against winter annual and early spring weeds is an important first step to achieving a clean field for crop planting. By including a product with residual activity, fields should remain weed-free and will allow for a delay in the next herbicide application until after crop planting. While this application is not necessary in many fields, those no-till fields with known winter annual weed issues may be good targets for an early burndown this spring."

Preventing soil damage with the right machinery

While it’s always advisable to wait until soil conditions are closer to optimal for any fieldwork or planting operations, sometimes time dictates you get started before soils are completely dried out. If you have herbicide or fertilizer to apply prior to planting, that rush is accentuated, but you can avoid damaging or compacting soils with the right application equipment. Components like tracks on pull-type sprayers can help spread out the equipment’s weight and create less compaction, enabling farmers to get into the field earlier than with other application equipment, like larger self-propelled sprayers.

“We noticed a huge advantage when spraying with our FAST 2,400 gallon sprayer with tracks in June 2018. Southwest Minnesota received an extraordinary amount of rain right in the middle of our peak spraying season. Once things started to dry out for a few days in very late June, we were able to spray our fields two or three days before we even saw a self-propelled sprayer out in our area. In fact, we had 2,000 acres sprayed before we even saw self-propelled out in any fields in our area. We never got stuck in the field, left minimal ruts in fields and self-propelled sprayers were getting stuck everywhere, leaving significant ruts once they finally tried to get in the fields,” said Cody Fast, Marketing Director ­of Fast Ag Solutions and row crop farmer. “I have worked with a lot of farmers who are willing to pencil out their equipment costs per acre, consider potentially significant repair and maintenance costs related to used self-propelled sprayers, and really think about the benefits of having more flotation. They see the significant benefits of this type of sprayer.”

An added benefit of leveraging a pull-type sprayer in a wet spring comes in its size capabilities. Because the equipment is lightweight compared to self-propelled machines, a pull-type sprayer can accommodate a larger tank while reducing the compacting force on soils. A larger tank means fewer stops for chemical or fertilizer, making operations more efficient when time savings is a high priority, especially when coupled with existing technology in the tractor cab.

“We have run a 2,400-gallon FAST pull-type sprayer with tracks for the past five years and have pulled it with a John Deere 8RT track tractor. I see huge benefits with the large tank and tracks, especially when we spray down 20 gallons of 28% nitrogen with herbicide pre-emerge on our corn acres, and when we are spraying 15 to 20 gallons per acre on soybeans as well as a post-emerge application,” Fast said. “We are able to cover twice as many acres between fills compared to most self-propelled sprayers. When we are spraying at 13 to 14 miles per hour in the field with autosteer, that really increases our efficiency and the number of acres we can spray each day. In a lot of fields, having that extra tank capacity makes the difference between spraying the entire field on one tank fill or not, which also makes a big difference on how many acres we spray per day.”

Ultimately, overcoming this spring’s excessive moisture and limiting potential yield loss in planting and early fieldwork will be about conducting field operations at the optimal times. Ensuring you’re not inflicting more damage to soils by rushing field operations, including planting and fertilizer and herbicide applications, will go a long way to helping your crops achieve their natural highest yield potential.