Getting a Good Start

Getting a Good Start

The 2016 crop year is off to a good start with fall planted crops looking great as we come out of winter and head into spring.  Prospects for adequate levels of irrigation water are excellent with above average mountain snow packs being reported all across southern Idaho.  At this point in the season, what more could we ask for?  Higher commodity prices, that’s what!  With last year’s rollback of grain prices, many growers are looking for places to cut expenses in order to find a small fraction of the profits that were available in recent years.

     “Cutting Expenses.”  On the surface of it, this statement seems logical and the right thing to do when income opportunities are retracting.  Stated another way, is it possible to “Save yourself into prosperity?”  I suppose you could save yourself into prosperity if you are talking about putting money (profits) into a savings account, an IRA, or a 401K plan, but does this really work when we are talking about the production of a crop?  In my 40+ years of experience in the Ag business, I have never seen a grower “Save himself into prosperity.” What usually happens, is he saves himself right out of business.  “Cutting Expenses” is nothing more than cutting investment in the crop and that rarely produces higher yields or profits.

     In order to successfully produce a profitable crop, it is still necessary to invest in the crop. Cutting back on crop inputs almost certainly ensures that yields will be lower, and in times of lower commodity prices, can growers afford to have lower yields?  Obviously, the answer is no.  Growers must invest in the same things that they did in the past in order to pay the bills and generate a profit. Unfortunately, margins will be lower, but highly scrutinized wise targeted investments and practices will ensure that the bills get paid and there is money left over at the end of the day.

     There are many wise investments to make in a crop.  Those out of pocket investments include, but are not limited to fertilizer, certified seed, seed treatments, weed control, disease control, irrigation, equipment, and many more.  There are also investments that require little out of pocket cost such as crop rotation, controlling the “Green Bridge,” seed bed preparation, seed placement, and irrigation timing/amount just  to name a few.  How each of these is applied or managed will determine success or failure in making a profit.  So which of these investments are most important?  As Ric Wesselman, seed treatment representative with Syngenta, has said many times, “You get one chance to get a good stand…make the most of it.” It is my opinion as well that investments in the things that get the crop off to a good start are the ones that are most important in producing a top yield  Establishment of a poor stand sets the stage for the remainder of the season. At that point, additional investments cannot bring back everything that was lost with a poor start.

The most important things that are included in “Getting a Good Start” are:

bigstock Wind turbines in a wheat field 85076861Rotation - How many times have you seen or experienced a poor stand in a field?  I have seen and experienced it thousands of times.  Almost always, a reason for a poor plant stand can be found and usually Mother Nature is blamed. While Mother Nature is very powerful, we often times ignore her effects and do nothing to mitigate them. Crop rotation is a good example to illustrate the point.  There are volumes of research papers expounding the virtues of crop rotation throughout the world.  The basic premise is that if you follow one crop with that same crop the following season, there is a high likelihood that field conditions such as presence of disease, insects, residues, etc. will affect yield and quality in a negative way (i.e. wheat planted back on wheat promotes Fusarium Head Blight, Take All, and Rhizoctonia).  On the other hand if one crop is followed by a different crop (i.e. wheat is followed by potatoes) minimal disease effect is carried from the first to the second crop.  Of course, some diseases host on both crops, but the effect is minimized by practicing good crop rotation. Most crop rotation research has concluded that a three year or longer rotation almost completely mitigates the negative effects of Mother Nature. Working with Mother Nature almost always works.

Controlling the “Green Bridge” - At Thresher’s recent Seed Days event, I presented the results from a trial where the McGregor R & D team studied the effects of the “Green Bridge” in barley. You may recall that the “Green Bridge” is the practice of allowing green plant material to exist in a field up to and including the day of planting.  Left green, any disease or insect problem that exists on the volunteer crop simply moves over to the new seed or seedling that has just been planted.  In recent years, we have even seen aphids from adjacent corn fields, field borders, or rangeland move into our newly seeded fields and transmit Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus (BYDV).  This, too, is the “Green Bridge.”  In the trial, it was found that controlling (eliminating all green plant material in the field) the “Green Bridge” a month or more ahead of planting increased barley yield 578-637#/acre.  It was also found in this trial that the use of light tillage and the application of starter fertilizer gave an additional yield of 360#/acre of barley.  That’s nearly a thousand pounds of barley or about $100.00/acre income.  Is the “Green Bridge” important?  Yes, it is. WOW!

Seed Bed Preparation - Seed bed preparation is another important factor in raising a profitable crop. A few years back I observed a tractor pulling a heavy disc that was pulling a row of concrete filled tires directly behind the disc.  The field had been in potatoes and had plenty of moisture left over from pre-harvest irrigation.  This operation is a common practice, so what could be wrong with it?  Here’s what was wrong – this tillage and packing operation was leaving the soil so hard that the drill could not penetrate it effectively.  Much of the seed was left sitting on top of the ground going into winter. The wheat stand was horrible coming out of winter. Growers must pay attention to field conditions and adjust their practices to create a good seed bed.  The use of a disc destroys soil structure more effectively than any other implement.  There are much better implements for leveling and preparing a seed bed. A good seed bed is one that is firm, yet pliable and has adequate soil moisture.  Hard/loose soil, cloddiness, and poor seed zone moisture will all lead to a poor stand and a poor start.

Certified Seed - Certified seed is a must. Brett Wilken with Thresher has illustrated the value of certified seed many times at Thresher’s meetings in talking about purity, germination, the certification process, etc. I want to expand on his comments by citing a bulletin that was put out last year by Clark Israelsen, Utah State University Extension Agent, Cache County.  In this bulletin, Clark describes a seed box survey that has been conducted in Cache County once each decade since 1958.

“The most recent survey for small grains included 42 spring samples and 46 fall planted samples from Cache County....

For each sample collected we conducted a germination test, assessed seed purity, identified percent and identity of weed seeds, inert matter and other crop seeds (such as wheat seeds mixed with barley seed). The typical analysis on certified seed was 99.09% purity, 98% germination, 0% weeds, 0% other crops and 0.01%inert matter. By comparison, farmer saved seed was 98.34% pure (not bad) but only an average of 87% of the seed germinated.  A germination test 12% lower than certified is reason enough to only plant certified.  Even more alarming was the fact that germination from some of the farmer saved seed was as low as 48%.  Another real concern from non-certified seed came from the detection of 0.32% weeds, 0.26% other crop seed and 1.13% inert matter.  Much of the weed seed was barnyard grass, green foxtail, goosefoot, wild mustard, pigweed, witchgrass, wild buckwheat, quack grass, lambs quarter and field bindweed. Most of these seeds are tiny, so on a percentage basis, a multitude of weeds were being planted for each cultivated crop such as wheat or barley.  Anything saved on the initial cost of the seed was soon lost to reduced yield or additional herbicide costs from attempting to control weeds that the grower actually planted…

Certified seed is typically grown by local farmers in cooperation with local seed companies.  It is also inspected several times throughout the growing and conditioning process before it officially qualifies as Certified Seed and is sold to growers….

“Seed Box Surveys” demonstrate that certified seed is actually a savings instead of an expense…”

     Israelsen makes some excellent points above, but he doesn’t address the issue of disease being carried over on farmer saved seed.  Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) in recent years has become an issue in southern Idaho. This disease can be easily carried over on seed, which almost certainly ensures that you will have poor germination and the occurrence of the FHB.  The only way to control seed borne Fusarium is through sanitizing the seed by using seed treatments, the topic of the next section.

Seed Treatment – Seed treatments are a very important part of “Getting a Good Start” Their function is to control diseases and insects that affect germinating seeds and seedlings.  In the presence of disease, young plants are very vulnerable to diseases that attack young roots, limiting or destroying their ability to take up moisture and nutrients.  There are three major root diseases, Fusarium, Rhizoctonia, and Pythium that affect germinating seeds and young plants.  A good seed treatment will have active ingredients that control all of these diseases. CruiserMaxx®Vibrance® Custom Blend has two active ingredients that control Fusarium, three active ingredients that control Rhizoctonia and one active ingredient that controls Pythium. A great seed treatment has active ingredients with at least two different modes of action for each of these diseases. 

     A good seed treatment also has an insecticide.  CruiserMaxxVibrance Custom Blends contain Cruiser®5FS insecticide.  This insecticide controls aphids that spread BYDV, and suppresses wireworms at higher use rates.  An additional benefit of Cruiser is its plant health effect called the “Vigor Effect.”  Cruiser improves the plant’s ability to overcome Abiotic stressors such as pH, heat, cold, etc.  Often, this Vigor Effect helps the plant produce an additional 3-5 bushels depending on the abiotic stressors present.

     In order to protect seed and seedlings, excellent coverage is essential to ensure you are sanitizing the seed and starting with the cleanest disease free seed possible. In the case of Fusarium, coverage is of paramount importance. Fusarium spores are everywhere and less than total coverage allows this disease to start fresh, right on the seed.  Thresher uses state of the art treating equipment to accomplish complete and effective coverage of the seed surface as well as systemic control of diseases inside of the seed.

Seed treatments help drive early plant health which is necessary for producing top crop yields.


Seed placement – After all of the above items have been attended to, the very important task of placing seed in the ground is the final step in “Getting a Good Start.”   Placing seed in the ground is sometimes a controversial subject and there are many schools of thought on how it should be done.  I will give you my opinion on seed placement based on my experience.  There are four key components in properly placing seed:

FIRST, you must use a drill that is capable of consistently placing seed at the seeding depth that is desired.  Double disc drills with consistent/constant down pressure and press wheels on a properly prepared seed bed usually accomplish this task best.  Hoe style drills with or without press wheels, no matter how the ground is prepared, rarely place seed consistently.  Sure they will raise wheat, but not the best wheat.

SECOND, seeding speed must be adjusted to seeding equipment and field conditions.  At Thresher’s Seed Days, data was presented that showed seeding wheat at 4 MPH yielded 11.8 bushels more than seeding it at 6 MPH.  Why would this happen?  It happened, because the drill, under the given field conditions, was not capable of consistently placing seed at a depth that would allow for quick, even emergence at 6 MPH.  At that speed, some seed was no doubt placed properly, but the majority of it was either placed too deep or too shallow (maybe even on top of the ground). Even with good down pressure, a double disc opener traveling too fast will bounce up and down (chatter) as the seed is being dropped.  Seed that comes up later, either because it is too shallow or too deep, almost always yields less than the first seed up.  Seeding is an operation that shouldn’t be done in a hurry. Fast seeding, while it gets the job done quicker, costs money. Slowing down and paying attention to field conditions and the capabilities of the seeding equipment will ensure even and consistent stands.

bigstock New life Bunch of young whea 7813525THIRD, seed emerges best when it is planted in moisture and nutrients.  Most of the time, in irrigated production, it is not a problem to place seed into moisture.  There are times, however that shallow moisture is not available.  About 4-5 years ago I remember a spring where soil moisture was very low due to a dry winter and early spring.  There were about two days that spring, where seeding conditions were adequate for getting a good stand.  Steady winds following those days dried the soil surface. Low sub-moisture made things worse.  Fields seeded after that had 60-70% emergence, leaving the remaining seed in dry soil until rainfall/irrigation occurred 2-3 weeks later.  Yields suffered that year.  What could have been done about this?  Filling the soil moisture profile in the fall would have helped.  Nutrients in close proximity to the seed are important too.  Young plants need adequate fertility to be healthy. Placing nutrients on the seed or as a starter in the seed furrow will always help improve plant health and improve yields. This is especially true in short rotations where there is increased disease pressure that is literally pruning off root hairs.  Un- affected root hairs need quick access to nutrients to maintain plant health and mitigate the effects of the disease.

FINALLY, how deep should you seed? This isn’t really a trick question.  There are some guidelines above, but here’s the answer:  Seed wheat between 0.5 and 1.5 inches.  Determining the exact depth that field conditions dictate will produce the quickest and most even stand.  It’s as simple as that.

     Mother Nature is very powerful and can still throw us some curve balls, but if these guidelines are followed, “Getting a Good Start” will more consistently produce top crop yields and success on the farm.