The Farmer's Shadow in Your Fields

By: Dean Slates, Holmes County SWCD Program Assistant

“The best fertilizer for a crop is the shadow of the farmer. The more frequently it is applied, the better the likely outcome.” (author unknown) I have never been able to make it fit as the answer to a question, but the truth of that axiom remains with us every crop production season. And, I think, never more so than what we are experiencing this season. Farmers need to budget time to be walking their fields, looking for “stuff.”

Our spring planting season has been less than conducive to timely crop efforts. The other fact that rises is that the time for spring field work is being compressed and is merging with spring forage harvest. You are busy. You are probably tired. And the markets have you stressed. And now this “old guy” is telling you to get out in your fields frequently.

“Crop scouting” is an old concept that has never been more relevant or important. Scouting needs to begin before the crop is planted and continue throughout the growing season. Before planting, you need to look for potentially troublesome weeds. Identify the plants that are growing and make a plan to assure that these plants do not pose a competitive challenge to your crop. This is especially important now that we have several weed species that are resistant to one (or more) herbicide active ingredients. Be alert also for residue and soil conditions that might be troublesome for your planting equipment. If planting conditions don’t match with the capabilities of your planting tools, you need to identify a solution, quickly. Poor stands due to planter failures are not really fixable. Yield reductions are inevitable.  

Once the crop is planted, scouting should commence in 3-4 days--on hands and knees, digging--to ascertain the status of crop seed germination and growth. Our delayed planting should result in fairly prompt crop emergence. As the crop emerges, you need to begin scouting for problems. In our part of the world, slugs, cutworms, even armyworms are common yield robbing early-season crop pests. If you are out there looking for these pests every three to five days you can intercept, and make rescue applications, before yield losses occur. Serious pest problems are not all that predictable, and they are not likely in every field. While slugs and cutworm problems are prone to be along field borders, armyworms are more likely in the field middle. So … it is not recommended to only scout the headlands and field edges.

As the crop grows, look for weed escapes. For corn, weed competition needs to be halted before they get four inches tall. For soybeans, weeds need controlled by the time they get to six inches tall. This means that escaping weeds need to be identified very quickly and a control strategy implemented quickly. If you wait till the weeds are at the control height, before control is initiated, potential yield reductions have already occurred.

Crop scouting needs to continue on (at least) a weekly basis through pollination to allow you to intercept weed, insect and potential disease issues. As the season progresses, and the crops mature, corrective actions become difficult (or impossible) but the information you glean during late season crop scouting can be the basis for plans to prevent those issues in next year’s crops.

Don’t forget to scout the alfalfa crops. Those warm days and storms that came to us from the southwest, brought the first batch of potato leafhoppers to our area right on schedule. While there is little (or no) risk of yield-robbing potato leafhopper feeding damage to the first cutting alfalfa, scouting of second crop growth needs to be done, at least weekly, to head off potential losses.

Effective crop scouting takes a bit of time and it cannot be done from the seat of your pick-up or ATV. You must get on the ground and look, dissect, and dig. No exceptions! It may be that the “scout” is a hired consultant. It may be that the scout is a spouse or younger family member. Some years back, I conducted a “crop scout training series.” Two of the participants in this program were a farmer and his 8th grade daughter. That girl took special interest in crop scouting. She was diligent and became really good at it…. a whole lot better than the teacher.  

The real benefit of crop scouting is to limit the results of yield-reducing pest problems. Depending on the season, the payback for the “farmer’s shadow” this season could be very high.  

Dean Slates.JPG

Dean Slates, Holmes County SWCD Program Assistant

Dean Slates joined the Holmes SWCD staff in May 2006 as a part-time program assistant, having devoted more than 50 years to the Ohio State University and the furtherance of commercial agriculture in Northeast Ohio. Born and raised on a Carroll County, Ohio dairy farm, Dean holds both bachelor and master of science degrees in ag education from the Ohio State University Contact Dean at 330-674-2811.