RICHMOND—While high-stakes poker players have to worry about what’s in their opponents’ hands, there are only 52 cards in a deck.
A farmer deciding when to plant corn has to weigh thousands of variables he or she cannot control, starting with the weather.
Corn is one of the few row crops farmers can plant early, but the risk of failure is high. Soil temperatures must be warmer than 50 degrees by mid-morning for good germination, and a stretch of warm weather with showers is ideal right after planting.
“Just as a general trend, as farms have gotten bigger we’ve pushed the planting dates back a little earlier. But corn, when it freezes, you’ll lose the top growth for sure. So it’s a gamble,” said Dr. Wade Everett Thomason, Virginia Tech associate professor and Virginia Cooperative Extension grains specialist. New hybrid corn varieties are more cold-tolerant, but it’s still risky, he said.
Late March and early April are when the risk of a heavy frost drops below 50 percent for most of Virginia. A freeze could do more than just damage a tender young corn crop. It could be a financial disaster.
“The people I talk to, even though it is warm, they’re not planting any earlier than normal,” said David Coleman, grain manager for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “I’ve heard some rumors of that, but the people I talk to don’t want to risk a late-season cold snap.”
Corn seed is too expensive to risk having to replant, and many of the ideal corn hybrids are available in limited supplies, Coleman said. Plus, many farmers with crop insurance risk having no coverage if they plant before a certain date and suffer freeze damage.
Farmers are preparing their fields earlier than usual, however, Coleman said.
The warmer weather is also risky for wheat growers, he said. If winter wheat matures too early in the spring and gets hit by a freeze, harvest yields can drop dramatically.
The cost of just about everything a farmer needs when planting corn has increased again this year, according to the Purdue Ag Economics Report. Land rental rates are up an average of 12 percent in the Midwest, fertilizer prices are higher due to international demand, seed costs are higher and fuel prices are as high for farmers as they are for consumers. Nonetheless, some growers are looking to plant a little sooner this year, Thomason said, in hopes of greater yields this summer.
“The most detrimental thing for corn we have annually is the heat and drought of the summer, usually in the last of July and first of August,” Thomason said. “So anything we can do to get the corn to mature before then would be helpful.”
at 804-290-1105, Thomason at 540-231-2988 or Norm Hyde
, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.