Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as it Applies to Soil Moisture

Suitability of the soil moisture and whether a field is “fit” for field work and planting is partially “in the eyes of the beholder”, but is also subject to the “laws of relativity” and calendar date. Use your best judgement.

The bad news is that Monday’s USDA-NASS crop progress report estimated that only 6% of Indiana’s corn had been planted as of May 12, which puts our farmers in the unenviable position of suffering through the slowest planting progress EVER for this point in May. Nationally, only 30% of the corn crop was estimated to be planted as of May 12, compared with the most recent 5-year average progress of 66%. With more rain moving through the state late this week, let me offer a contrarian (if not “tongue in cheek”) view about soil moisture and planting.

The superintendent of our Purdue Agronomy Farm and I commiserate every planting season when it comes to deciding when the soil is “fit” to work or plant. We scuff the surface of the fields in mid-April, dig a few spadefuls of soil, squeeze the soil into a ball like the soil scientists tell us to do, and then agree that the soil is too wet to work or plant.

Around the first of May, we scuff the surface of the fields, dig a few spadefuls of soil, squeeze the soil into a ball like the soil scientists tell us to do, and then agree that the soil is too wet to work or plant.

Again in mid-May, we scuff the surface of the fields, dig a few spadefuls of soil, squeeze the soil into a ball like the soil scientists tell us to do, and then agree that the soil is maybe just about right to work or plant, but we’ll give it a few more days.

By late May, we scuff the surface of the fields, dig a few spadefuls of soil, squeeze the soil into a ball like the soil scientists tell us to do, and then agree that the soil is just as wet as it was back in mid-April, but maybe we ought to be working ground and planting anyway.

Einstein was right…………it’s all about relativity.

The point of my sharing this annual ritual with you is that we are rapidly approaching the point in the planting season where we need to “fish or cut bait”. Yes, there are risks of working ground too wet or planting “on the wet side” (see articles below), but there are also risks of waiting so long for the soil to become “fit” to begin planting that the majority of your corn ground gets planted way too late.

Heaven forbid that I should recommend anyone to work ground or plant corn in soils that are wet enough to cause severe compaction that will haunt you later this summer. But, you know, when you decide back in mid-April to wait, you’ve got quite a bit of good planting season left to go. When you decide in mid-May to wait AND you have a lot of acres to cover, what you save by avoiding some soil compaction now may be less than what you risk by planting the bulk of your corn acres very, very late.

If you concur with these thoughts and decide to “mud in” your corn and suffer serious yield losses; then you did not hear it from me. If you “pull the trigger” now and successfully avoid planting the bulk of your corn in mid-June and win the yield jackpot; then I’ll accept all the credit.

There are no black & white answers to this situation, there are no silver bullets, and there are no certainties in farming. Use your best judgement in deciding when to head back to the fields over the coming days and/or weeks. You know your fields and soils better than anyone else.

Related References

Jasa, Paul. 2015. Wait for Better Conditions Before Heading Out on Wet Soils. CropWatch, Univ. Nebraska Extension. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/planting-wet-soils-2015 [URL accessed May 2019]

Jasa, Paul. 2019. Avoiding Sidewall Compaction at Planting. CropWatch, Univ Nebraska Extension. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2019/avoiding-sidewall-compaction-planting [URL accessed May 2019]

Nielsen, R.L. (Bob). 2019. Soil Compaction: The “Gift” That Keeps on Giving. Corny News Network, Purdue University. http://www.kingcorn.org/news/articles_19/SoilCompaction.html [URL accessed May 2019]

Nielsen, R.L. (Bob). 2019. The Planting Date Conundrum for Corn. Corny News Network, Purdue University. http://www.kingcorn.org/news/timeless/PltDateCornYld.html [URL accessed May 2019]

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