agronomist Jason Webster

Intermittent excessive rains at planting time led to an elongated planting season, making it tricky to manage weed and chemical control at the PTI research farm, says commercial agronomist Jason Webster. 

PONTIAC, Ill. — Jason Webster, who farms with his family near here and is a commercial agronomist for Precision Planting, said last year was one of the most difficult seasons ever for doing farm research.

“This year might be worse,” Webster said.

The intermittent excessive rains at planting again this year led to an elongated planting season, with some corn planted as early as April 5 and some almost two months later, on June 1. That isn’t so bad in a way for this farm because Webster does planting date trials anyway, but it means some corn is silking while other fields will be ready to harvest Labor Day weekend.

That makes it tricky to manage the timing with weed and chemical control, said Webster before an afternoon tour of the Precision Technology Institute (PTI) farm at its second official field day of the season on July 29.

The long planting window, combined with periods of too much rain and too little rain this season, adds to the challenge. On this day, he was waiting for an aerial applicator which had been difficult to schedule with crops having so many different levels of crop maturity.

Webster planted both corn and soybeans on April 5 at the PTI farm.

“It was cold, wet conditions and I wondered if I should be planting,” he said. Emergence was slow but the crop looks good, he said.

Some of his crops were planted just before Mother’s Day when temperatures dipped to 29 degrees in May for two hours. There is no visible crop damage, he said.

Other cornfields here survived a severe storm that laid corn flat in July. Webster showed a picture of the flattened crop and then pointed to the same field where the corn has pretty much righted itself with some bowed stalks. He said the storm came at the time of pollination, but it does appear there will still be a good crop here as well.

Water recycling

The 400-acre PTI farm, in its third year of production, has an advantage most farmers in this part of Livingston County don’t have — a water recycling program.

The research farm, at the edge of Pontiac, was on low, wet land. Traditional tiling wasn’t an easy solution because it is hemmed in on one side by Interstate 55 and by Walmart on the other. To accommodate that issue, a retention pond was built at the lowest level of the farm to study recycling water.

This year in some fields, the tiling system pulls the water away when it is too wet, and it can be used to redistribute water from the retention pond back to the field when it is too dry. In a year like this with both wet and dry periods, it will be yield booster, Webster said.

However, he also notes how much work it is to manage.

“I understand why some people call it irritation instead of irrigation,” he joked.

Despite the work, cost and time of getting the system installed and functioning, Webster said it is paying off with yield potential. In the high-yield research plot, which includes the benefit of both irrigation and fertigation (adding fertilizer to the irrigation), he estimates the corn yield on this intensively managed plot to be about 342 bu./acre this fall.

“We tissue test every 10 days,” he said of managing the level of fertigation.

The tours he leads for farmers across the country to see the new Precision Planting equipment in action, and to talk about planting dates, herbicide research, plant population and other projects look different this year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Masks were offered at the entrance for anyone wanting to use them. Social distancing was practiced in the field and on the people-moving wagons and in the tent where boxed lunches were served. Attendees signed a health waiver. More tour dates are planned in August and September.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.