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WOOSTER, Ohio — If you’ve stepped outside just once this past week, you probably noticed it feels a lot more like late May than March.
Daytime highs for Ohio and Pennsylvania consistently topped 70 degrees the past week — the latest in a trend of unusually warm weather that persisted nearly all winter.
We’re seeing record highs of 30 or more degrees above normal, and that has farmers weighing the good and bad.
Many farmers say they’re saving money by burning less fuel for heat, and there’s less hassle to remove snow and ice.
However, the lack of a traditionally cold winter also poses some serious crop season challenges — some that may not yet be known.
Insect survival is always a top concern during mild winters, both the number of insects and when they become active.
Ron Hammond, an entomologist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio, said there is “a tendency for more to survive,” but it’s not as straightforward as it might seem.
“A number of our insects will over-winter fairly well even in really harsh conditions,” he said.
Additionally, Hammond said many insects migrate south for winter and therefore are more affected by weather conditions further south. That includes insects like the black cutworm, true armyworm and potato leafhopper.
However, there is a consensus that some harmful insects will likely be abundant, including slugs, stink bugs and corn flea beetle, which carries the bacteria for the infection known as Stewart’s wilt.
Stewart’s wilt is especially damaging to undented corn, popcorn and sweet corn.
“We recommend that growers scout, scout, scout,” Hammond said. “Growers need to be out in their fields to be aware of the insects they’re dealing with and pay more attention this year, especially in the crop rows, because more insects may be waiting for crops to come out of the ground.”
John Tooker, an assistant professor and extension specialist at Penn State, said there’s a chance that a mild winter could actually help kill additional insects, because sometimes when it’s warmer, insects fail to prepare.
“A mild winter can hurt a population of pests because while it’s cold, it’s not cold enough to force them into their winter hibernation state,” he said.
The biggest issue, Hammond and Tooker said, may be an earlier return of insects, rather than a higher population.
“We might have a lot of insects just start showing up earlier than they normally would,” Hammond said, including alfalfa weevil.
Insects aside, there’s the issue of when to start planting. There’s some concern weeds and insects could show up first, long before farmers get into the fields to plant.
“This warm winter won’t necessarily affect when we can plant because we still have to wait until it dries up,” Hammond said. “Everything else might just show up earlier.”
Neal Bond, who farms southwest of Columbus and is a sales representative for Pioneer, said the ideal time to plant corn is usually the end of April through the first week of May. But, if the warm weather stays around, farmers might be tempted to start even sooner.
He said a minimum temperature of 50 degrees is necessary, with a warming trend in the forecast, to prevent the seed from absorbing cold moisture, deteriorating and becoming infected with pathogens.
One thing to avoid, said Pioneer Account Manager Matt Miller, is being the first guy to plant. If the insects are already out there looking for something to eat, you don’t want to invite them.
“If you have the first soybeans up in the neighborhood, (your farm) will be where the insects go,” he said.
Another issue is compaction — from fields that were harvested during last year’s record wet year — to fields that may be entered too soon this year, when the soil is warm but not yet dry.
Pioneer Area Manager Kevin Smith said the combine ruts and compaction during harvest created an issue that could take a few years to resolve. The repair time will likely be extended, he predicts, because the mild winter did not provide enough freeze-thaw cycles, which help recondition the soil and break up heavy tracks.
“We’re going to be fighting that (compaction) the next couple years,” he said.
The wet year also prevented some fall tillage and cover crops from being planted, which officials say could result in “soil clods” in fields and more clod-to-seed contact, which can reduce or prevent growth.
Overall, the planting season may turn out to be as much a surprise as the record warm weather — and farmers will have to monitor and adjust as they go.
“Anyone who knows what is going to happen is guessing,” Tooker said.