If you ask a farmer when or why they started seeding, the answer is often: “I don’t know, I just do . . .” In all honesty there is more thought that goes into the process, but in it’s simplest form, it really is that simple. That is the short answer, but I need more to write about, so let’s talk about the long answer. The long answer is that several factors are considered in the process: weather (moisture conditions specifically), soil temperature (especially in the spring), workload, and crop insurance deadlines are the key factors in our decision.
Weather is the factor currently keeping us out of the field, in fact it is snowing (and has been for about 36 hours) right now. The snow cover, cold weather, and increasingly wet conditions will keep us out of the field for several more weeks. It is hard to believe but we have gotten roughly 15-18″ of snow this week alone. We are 1.1″ away from breaking the all-time record for snowfall in a season.
Weather does not always slow down our progress, it can also cause us to rush and try and get as much done as we can. In many cases we will decide to hurry and seed in order to “beat” incoming storms and finish seeding as many acres as possible. It is almost universally true (in our area anyway) that crops sprout better when put in the ground before a moisture event than they do after.
Weather can also impact planting decisions during drought. Seeds will not sprout when they do not have any moisture available. Farmers do tend to be optimists and prefer to operate under the belief that “if you do not plant it, it cannot grow,” but too dry will cause us to wait in the hopes that it does rain. At the very least it can cause us to wait to seed until a decent chance of moisture appears in the forecast. Last year when a flash drought caught Eastern Montana and the Dakota’s by surprise there were a number of crops seeded in mid-May that never received enough rain to sprout until the middle of August. Needless to say that is not an ideal situation.
Air temperature can also impact planting decisions. This is typically specific to frost sensitive crops such as corn and to sunflowers. These crops are sensitive to “late season” frosts in May and we tend to plant them close to the date of our average last frost (sometime in mid-late May). We are also cognizant of the fact that the earlier these crops go in, the better chance they have to mature in time to escape frost risk in September (and even August). It is a balancing act that can be difficult to manage.
Soil temperature is becoming more and more important as we add in different crops. I have discussed the reasons we add different crops to our rotation before (linked here) and I mentioned there are different agronomic implications for each crop. Corn and sunflowers are particularly sensitive to soil temperature. Corn requires soil temperature to be 50 degrees before it can sprout and sunflowers need to be even warmer, closer to 55-60 degrees. We tend to hedge our bets and seed when the soil is a little cooler if the weather allows, but the seeds sit in the ground for several days longer than normal as the soil continues to warm in the spring.
For crops such as spring wheat, barley, and hay barley/forage mixes the soil temperature is less of an issue. Wheat can germinate in temperatures as cool as 40 degrees while barley prefers to be a little warmer at 45-50 degrees. We definitely hedge towards 45 degrees when seeding barley. Winter wheat is seeded in the fall so soil temperature really is not a consideration when we begin seeding that crop. We will also run into crop insurance deadlines long before the soil cools enough in the fall to be concerned about it.
Balancing workload is always a consideration for anything we do. Almost universally seeding is considered a priority, however we still have to balance machinery repairs, herbicide applications, cattle breeding season, grain hauling, hay hauling, and many other responsibilities. In the fall we can also be balancing harvest and seeding which is an even more delicate balance. Workload does not mean we put off seeding because we want to have free time or some other irresponsible choice however, it just means we may decide to seed this week because it fits our schedule better. Weather, soil temperature, and crop insurance deadlines can all align and there is no difference between seeding tomorrow or next week, then our workload and field readiness decides if we start tomorrow or next week.
Crop insurance has certain deadlines for early seeding date and late seeding date that vary by crop and geographical location. These dates typically are not factors in our decision making simply because the conditions above have dictated our seeding ability towards the middle of those dates. This year there is a chance we will have to pay attention to the late seeding date for spring wheat, but I honestly cannot even tell you when it is. Sometime in May. But for us, we have likely already decided to switch our cropping choices if we have not been able to seed spring wheat by May.
These cropping dates annoy some producers, but in many cases they draw a decent line in the sand: your crop runs a significant risk of failing if you seed any later. In our case for spring wheat, that would be true, any later than mid-May and we get into too much summer heat, not enough moisture (on average), and too late into September for a spring wheat crop to be considered a viable cropping option. Dates also exist for many of our other crops as well. These dates actually protect the program (and by extension taxpayers) from insuring crops that run a higher than average risk of failure.
In the days following the original posting I received quite a few unique and geographically specific “farmer tales” about when to start seeding. The following are a few of them:
From North Dakota: “When the bromegrass in the ditches is 4″ tall and the road to the farm is passable.”
From Kansas: “It is time to seed corn when the hedge leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear.” For a visual and more info check out this post from A Kansas Farm Mom.
From Alberta: “After the first neighbor and before the last.”
From Montana: “If you can sit on the ground with your bare butt for 30 seconds it is time to start seeding.” or “When you see your neighbor start you know you are 3 days behind.” or “When you do not get stuck or pull up frozen chunks of ground.”
So despite the off the cuff “I don’t know, I just do . . . ” or “farmer tale” answers to the question “when do we start seeding?” it is not nearly as simple as the answer implies. In a perfect world it would be that simple, the weather would allow us to pick any day we wanted, in ideal moisture and temperature conditions, well within the crop insurance planting window. Unfortunately it usually is not that straight forward, especially in the spring as we fight spring snow storms. But hopefully now you have some window into our through process and the process we go through to decide what day to “roll the drills.” Also maybe cross your fingers for us that we will be able to seed sooner rather than later this spring.