‘Abnormally dry’ soil causing issues with early-planted crops

SALEM, Ohio — Just one year after the wettest spring on record, farmers in Ohio and western Pennsylvania could actually use some rain.

The National Weather Service and Ohio State University’s state climate office show northern Ohio and the northeast received 1-2 inches less rain in May than normal.

That’s about half the average this time of year, and with the corn nearly all planted and soybeans better than half done — now is not a good time for prolonged dry spells.

Garrett Pierce of Bristolville, Ohio, in Trumbull County, said his family is nearly done with 360 acres of soybeans — only to see some of the seeds growing sideways — because the ground on top got hard and crusted.

“We’re a little too dry here,” he said. “We got some seed in before the last rain we had, and then the ground crusted over. By the time we checked on (it) some of the beans started to turn around under the ground. We ran a rotary hoe over it, but with the lack of rain and the possibility of being too late, we may be replanting a few acres.”

He said a neighboring farmer had corn start to grow sideways in the ground, as well.

They’re not alone. Conditions have actually been dry across much of the Midwest.

The U.S. Drought Monitor — a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the country’s top weather agencies — shows about 47 percent of the Midwest is “abnormally dry.”

Corn crop

Corn is nearly all planted and much of the crop is growing well in Illinois, but there are reports of “floppy” corn plants in western and northwestern parts of the state and into southeastern Iowa.

“It’s an easy problem to spot,” said University of Illinois crop sciences professor Emerson Nafziger, in a released statement.

Floppy corn. Plants develop using water provided by the seminal (seed) root system up to the three-five leaf stage, after which the nodal roots — those that develop from the base of the stalk — take over and become the main root system for the rest of the season. If the nodal root system fails to develop, the plant becomes wobbly and may fall over — hence the name “floppy” corn.

The problem has also been called “rootless” corn due to the absence of nodal roots, according to Nafziger.

Another source of difficulty for nodal roots is what has been dubbed the “high-crown syndrome.” It’s a relatively rare phenomenon in which the base of the stem (the crown) ends up positioned at or very near the soil surface instead of at its normal placement about three-fourths of an inch deep in the soil.

Plant roots

As a result, the plant ends up perched atop the soil. Because nodal roots of such plants emerge above the soil surface, they often have great difficulty penetrating the soil, especially under dry conditions.

“Once plants can no longer stay upright due to a lack of anchoring roots, water uptake and photosynthesis slow down and the supply of sugars starts to decrease, limiting the ability of the plant to grow or to form roots,” Nafziger said. “If the plant is lying on soil that stays dry, it may break off its mesocotyl anchor and die.”

Dry future

In Ohio State University’s Crop Observation and Network publication — C.O.R.N. Newsletter — the dry period will likely continue the next couple weeks.

Long-range, the publication predicts a “warmer and drier start to summer in June, relaxing to near normal conditions by August.”

Nafziger said farmers still planting soybeans might be better off waiting until it rains — as opposed to planting in dry soil and risking a heavy rainfall — which could cause soil crusting.

Farmers can sometimes plant as deep as 3 inches to reach more moisture, but the moisture is not likely to be even and some parts of the field are unlikely to sprout until it rains.

“In such cases, it might be better to just plant at normal depths and wait for rain to bring them up, or wait to plant until after it rains,” Nafziger said.

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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