With warm start to spring, farmers resisting the urge to plant

ALBANY -- Scot Pfeuti has been farming long enough to understand that a mild winter followed by a warm start to spring is not a sign to begin planting corn.

ALBANY -- Scot Pfeuti has been farming long enough to understand that a mild winter followed by a warm start to spring is not a sign to begin planting corn.

But not all farmers follow common sense. "Everybody wants to be the first one, to get the neighbors talking," said Pfeuti, who farms on 2,000 acres between Monticello and Albany.

Pfeuti heard that a farmer just south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border has already planted 40 acres of corn "just to see what it will do." And a nearby farmer he does custom work for contemplated having Pfeuti plant 10 acres for him this past week for the same reason.

That's about one month earlier than Pfeuti's normal schedule; he usually plants between April 15-20.

"I don't think I'll start much before that," Pfeuti said as he enjoyed spending time outdoors with record-high temperatures in the 70s in southern Wisconsin.


But, he added with a laugh, "I might plant a little bit just to check the planter out and make sure the bugs are out of it."

Agronomists believe farmers should stick to their schedules even though the ground is warming up quickly and there are no signs it's going to cool down anytime soon.

"This weather is odd," said Shawn Conley, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison agronomy department. "I think we have to be cautious and just know what the risks are out there."

The warm winter has farmers bracing for all kinds of problems. The average winter frost runs 3 feet deep and this winter didn't make it a foot deep in many places. Thus, insects wintering in soil weren't killed. Also, insects that spent the winter in bark made it through unscathed.

"You're going to see an increased amount of insect pressure this year in general in terms of corn, soybeans, wheat," Landmark Co-op agronomist Joe Speich said. "We just don't know the severity and when it's going to hit. We're talking some pretty good temperatures already here. We're going to be talking some early mosquito hatches, too, because it's been so warm."

Pfeuti can attest about the mosquitoes. "I already saw one in my house," he said.

UW entomologist Bryan Jensen pointed out that the bean leaf beetle that attacks soybeans and the corn leaf beetle can thrive after a mild winter.

"But numbers were fairly low last year (for the bean leaf beetle)," he said. "If they were high going into the fall, I'd be a bit more concerned about them."


However, Jensen is worried about the alfalfa weevil because their populations have been up. "So that's something to keep an eye on this spring," he said.

Conley is concerned about the potential of drought in parts of Wisconsin because a dry fall led to a dry winter. He also is worried about perennial crops like winter wheat getting hit with a hard frost after it comes out of winter dormancy and goes into its green-up phase. He's telling farmers not to fertilize it too soon.

"We all know we're going to get another cold snap. We know it's going to happen," Conley said. "If all of a sudden we get a strong cold spell and temperatures drop to the teens for an extended time, that can really damage the crop. So one of my concerns is that we don't push those crops along."

Amanda Gevens, an assistant professor and plant disease specialist at UW, believes an abundance of soilborne diseases could develop this year. Diseases in vegetable crops include pythium and fusarium root rot.

"After a winter like we had, we'd have our eye on fusarium in most of the vegetable crops," she said.

Gevens said farmers should be diligent about looking for signs of soilborne pathogens. "Damping off or poor emergence are indications of a potential soilborne disease," she said.

Pfeuti plans to walk through his alfalfa fields soon looking for signs of winter kill. He worries about leaf hoppers in alfalfa, aphids in beans and cutworms, rootworms and army worms in corn. He hates seeing crops mangled by insects at harvest time.

"That's money just laying on the ground there," he said.


The same can be said for a killing frost in late May or June. That's why he's not eager to get corn seed that costs $100 an acre in the ground too soon.

"I remember the Father's Day frost in '93 or '95 where we lost quite a bit of corn in the bottoms (of fields)," Pfeuti said. "Some of our best corn is down in the low areas where the frost can get it. We wanted to replant but actually it was too late and we just put beans in there.

"So it doesn't pay to get into too big of a hurry."

(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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