Farmers have a deadline approaching, and the weather is not cooperating.
Corn needs to be planted by May 5 in order to have an optimal yield, said agricultural agent Matt Morris, who works at the University of Maryland Extension in Frederick County. With soil temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and rain continuing to fall, it is unlikely most farms will beat the clock this spring.
“No corn has been planted, that I know of,” Morris said on Wednesday as another rainstorm moved sluggishly across the region.
Jon Sewell, owner of Tuscarora Farms, is among the local farmers waiting on the weather. He has planted 1½ acres of sweet corn, but he plans to plant one-third of his 1,500 acres in feed corn by the end of spring.
Sewell likes the ground to be consistently 50 degrees and nighttime air temperatures to be a little higher before he plants, he said. If he plants while the ground and air are still cold, the plant can get confused which direction is warm and emerge unevenly from the soil. This can be a problem come harvest.
Years of statistical research, however, have shown that the best window to plant corn is between April 20 and May 5. After the fifth, farmers risk not seeing an optimal yield at the end of the growing season, Morris said.
“We’re behind this year. It’s a factor of the cold and wet weather,” Sewell said.
Wednesday’s rainstorm was followed by a bright, warm Thursday afternoon. But even a day of nice weather was not enough to get the fields ready for planting.
Farmers are told not to touch their fields when there’s moisture. Tractors and heavy farm equipment compact the soil when it’s wet — like mud squeezed in the palm — which is bad for the long-term health of the fields. Mud will also clog the machines or “smear” the edges of the trenches where the seeds are planted and create a concrete-like wall that the roots can’t grow through, Morris said.
The cold, wet spring hasn’t been isolated to just Maryland, either. Across the Corn Belt, the weather has been poor for field work this spring.
However, there were still reasons to be optimistic for a decent corn crop this year.
“If we can get a couple warm days, you’ll see a lot of activity,” Sewell said.
Frederick County needs only a few warm days with sunshine and wind to dry out the fields. Still, the area is used to having emerged corn now, rather than waiting to plant it, and the window for getting the corn in the ground is closing.
Most farmers will not be able to get all their fields planted before May 5, Morris predicted.
Large farms could take several weeks to plant their fields, and small farms with smaller equipment would also be strapped for time, he said. Paired with inevitable breakdowns or shutdowns due to the weather, much of the corn was not to be planted before the deadline.
So all the commodity farmers can do now is wait.
A few weeks after the corn is planted, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will release a “crop outlook” report. If the report expects yields to be down across the country, then there will likely be a corresponding jump in commodity prices, which would actually be good for farmers, Morris said.
Another upside to the poor weather is that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting it will continue.
In NOAA’s zero- to three-month and three- to six-month outlook, the region is predicted to receive above-normal precipitation and lower temperatures, Morris said. This will be good once the crop is in the ground, and hopefully stave off a hot and dry July during corn pollination, which can be detrimental to yields as well.
“This is not the best scenario, but I would take it over a hot, dry summer,” Morris said.