The Planting Date Conundrum For Corn

  • Early planting favors higher yields, but does not guarantee higher yields.
  • Statewide averages for planting progress and yield are not strongly related.
  • Planting date is but one of many yield influencing factors.

Conventional wisdom says that the prime planting “window” to maximize corn yields in much of Indiana opens about April 20 and closes about May 10. This “window” typically opens about one week later across the northern tier of Indiana counties (later warmup) and about one week earlier across the southern tier of Indiana counties (earlier warmup). Over the past 10 years, the pace of corn planting has typically accelerated beginning about April 20 and tapers off toward the end of May (accompanying popup image).

Weekly corn planting progress, Indiana, 10-yr Average 2012-2021.

Weekly corn planting progress, Indiana, 10-yr Average 2012-2021.

Recent rains across Indiana, although not excessive, have delayed the start of the 2022 corn planting season. As of April 24, the USDA-NASS estimated that only 1% of the state’s corn crop acreage was “in the ground” (about 3 weeks behind the 10-year average). Continued rainfall events this past week will keep most planters in the shed and the current short-term forecast for even more rain threatens to further delay planting around the state. The fearmongers and pessimists among us are already worrying about the consequences of a delayed planting season and the risk that imposes on the crop’s yield potential in 2022.

But, hold on, let’s think about this… How absolute are the negative consequences of late planted corn? How accurately does planting date predict statewide corn yield anyway? Does late planting in and of itself guarantee lower than normal yields? Good questions, but the effect of planting date on statewide average corn yield is simply not clearcut.

Analysis of USDA-NASS crop progress reports over the past 31 years (USDA-NASS, 2022) indicates there is NOT a strong relationship between planting date and absolute yield or even percent departure from trend yield on a statewide basis for Indiana. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the relationships between percent departure from statewide trend yield and two measures of statewide planting progress; percent of total corn acres planted by April 30 (Fig. 1) or by May 15 (Fig. 2). Even though mathematical relationships (aka “trend lines”) can be discerned, they only account for about 10-11% of the variability in trend yield departures from year to year (that’s what the calculated R2 values shown in the graphs tell us). Such a weak relationship reflects the fact that a number of other factors, in addition to planting date, also affect yield in any given year.

SIDENOTE: A recent article from colleagues at the Univ. of Nebraska (Elmore & Rees, 2019) documents the same absence of strong relationship between statewide corn planting progress and departures from trend yield in Nebraska.

Conundrum definition Here’s the Conundrum

Why is it that every corn agronomist worth their salt preaches about the importance of timely planting and yet the statewide statistical data suggest that planting date accounts for only 10% of the variability in statewide yields from year to year? Let’s look more closely at this apparent conundrum.

It is true that RELATIVE grain yield potential of corn declines with delayed planting after about May 1 (Irwin, 2022; Licht & Clemens, 2021; Nafziger, 2014, 2017, 2019; Wiebold, 2019). Estimated yield loss per day with delayed planting varies from about 0.3% per day early in May to about 1% per day by the end of May. RELATIVE grain yield potential goes down with delayed planting because of a number of factors including a shorter growing season, greater insect & disease pressure, and higher risk of hot, dry conditions during pollination.

However, the good news is that planting date is only one of many yield influencing factors for corn. What is important to understand is that the ABSOLUTE yield response to delayed planting is relative to the maximum possible yield in a given year.

In other words, if all the other yield influencing factors work together to determine that the maximum possible yield this year for the optimum planting date is 220 bu/ac, then the consequence of a 10-day planting delay beyond April 30 (at 0.3% decrease per day) would be a yield potential of about 213 bu/ac (i.e., 220 bushel potential minus [10 days x 0.3%] due to delayed planting). However, if all the other yield influencing factors work together to determine that the maximum possible yield this year for the optimum planting date is only 150 bu/ac, then the consequence of a 10-day planting delay beyond May 1 (at 0.3% decrease per day) would be a yield potential of about 146 bu/ac (i.e., 150 bu/ac potential minus [10 days x 0.3%] due to delayed planting). Make sense?

Consequently, it is possible for early-planted corn in one year to yield more than, less than, or equal to later-planted corn in another year depending on the exact combination of yield influencing factors for each year. The accompanying Figure 3 illustrates this confusing concept. In that graph, delayed planting of corn in an otherwise high yielding year (B) may still be higher yielding than a crop planted on the optimum planting date in an otherwise lower yielding year (C). Farmers know this to be true because many have had June-planted crops in recent years yield better than any crop they have ever had………….. because the remainder of the growing season following the delayed planting was extremely favorable for crop growth and development.

For example, the 2009 and 2012 Indiana corn crops represent late and early planting date years, respectively. About 94% of the state’s corn crop was planted by May 15 in 2012, but only 20% of the crop was planted by May 15 of 2009 (Fig. 2). Yet, the earlier planted 2012 crop yielded 38.6% BELOW trend yield for that year and the later planted 2009 crop yielded 9.5% ABOVE trend yield. Why? There were other important differences in yield influencing factors between the years other than simply the planting dates.

Bottom Line

Let’s not succumb quite yet to fearmongering triggered by the delayed start of planting the 2022 corn crop. We need only look back to the 2018 planting season for an example of a slow start to the planting season that was followed by a 2-week period in early May in which 60% of the state’s corn acreage was planted. “Mudding in” a crop early to avoid planting late will almost always end up being an unwise decision.

When faced with prospects of delayed planting, one should certainly look for ways to expedite the planting process by eliminating unnecessary tillage trips or delaying some field operations (Nielsen, 2019; Thomison & Culman, 2019) so that you do not plant any later than absolutely necessary. One example of a field operation that can be delayed with little risk of yield loss is to forego pre-plant nitrogen fertilizer applications in favor of sidedressing the crop later. This choice is especially low risk if your planting operation includes 2×2 starter fertilizer at rates of 20 lbs/ac of nitrogen or greater.

Finally, since delayed planting by itself is no guarantee of lower ABSOLUTE grain yield, I see little reason to change any crop inputs because of delayed planting, other than possibly seeding rates. Significantly delayed planting generally coincides with warmer soil temperatures compared to early planting. Consequently, stand establishment may be more successful with delayed planting, resulting in established plant populations that are closer to actual seeding rates than the usual 90 to 95% success rate with earlier planting dates. So, you might consider slightly reducing your seeding rates if planting is delayed out towards late May or beyond.

Figures

Fig. 1. Percent departure from statewide trend yield versus percent of corn acres planted by April 30 in Indiana, 1991 - 2021. Data derived from USDA-NASS crop survey data.

Fig. 1. Percent departure from statewide trend yield versus percent of corn acres planted by April 30 in Indiana, 1991 – 2021. Data derived from USDA-NASS crop survey data.

 

Fig. 2. Percent departure from statewide trend yield versus percent of corn acres planted by May 15 in Indiana, 1991 - 2021. Data derived from USDA-NASS crop survey data.

Fig. 2. Percent departure from statewide trend yield versus percent of corn acres planted by May 15 in Indiana, 1991 – 2021. Data derived from USDA-NASS crop survey data.

 

Fig. 3. The planting date conundrum relative to absolute yield potential: A delayed planted crop in one year (B) can yield better than a crop planted on the optimum date in another year (C).

Fig. 3. The planting date conundrum relative to absolute yield potential: A delayed planted crop in one year (B) can yield better than a crop planted on the optimum date in another year (C).

Related Reading

Coulter, Jeff. 2018. Planting Date Considerations for Corn. Univ. Minnesota Extension. https://extension.umn.edu/corn-planting/planting-date-considerations-corn [accessed Apr 2022].

Elmore, Roger and Jenny Rees. 2019. Windows of Opportunity for Corn Planting: Nebraska Data. CropWatch, Univ. of Nebraska Extension. https://cropwatch.unl.edu/2019/corn-planting-window [accessed Apr 2022]

Irwin, Scott. 2022. What Do We Know About Planting Dates and Corn and Soybean Yield from Agronomic Field Trials? farmdoc daily (12):51, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. https://farmdocdaily.illinois.edu/2022/04/what-do-we-know-about-planting-dates-and-corn-and-soybean-yield-from-agronomic-field-trials.html [accessed Apr 2022]

Larson, Zachary. 2017. Planting Date, Temperature, Spacing, and Emergence: What Really Matters? Penn. State Univ. Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/planting-date-temperature-spacing-and-emergence-what-really-matters [accessed Apr 2022].

Licht, Mark and Zachary Clemens. 2021. Corn and Soybean Planting Date Considerations. Integrated Crop Management, Iowa State University Extension. https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/blog/mark-licht-zachary-clemens/corn-and-soybean-planting-date-considerations [accessed Apr 2022]

Nafziger, Emerson. 2014. Another Look at Corn Planting Date Response. Dept of Crop Sciences, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. https://farmdoc.illinois.edu/field-crop-production/crop_production/another-look-at-corn-planting-date-response.html [accessed Apr 2022].

Nafziger, Emerson. 2017. Planting Date for Corn and Soybeans in Illinois. Dept of Crop Sciences, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. https://farmdoc.illinois.edu/field-crop-production/uncategorized/planting-date-for-corn-and-soybeans-in-illinois.html. [accessed Apr 2022].

Nafziger, Emerson. 2019. Managing when planting is delayed. Dept of Crop Sciences, Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. https://farmdoc.illinois.edu/field-crop-production/uncategorized/managing-when-planting-is-delayed.html. [accessed Apr 2022].

Nielsen, RL (Bob). 2019. Some Points to Ponder as You Struggle With Decisions About Late-Planted Corn. Corny News Network, Purdue Extension. http://www.kingcorn.org/news/Articles_19/LatePlantedCorn.html [accessed Apr 2022].

Nielsen, RL (Bob). 2022. Maximum Weekly Planting Progress for Corn and Soybean in Indiana: Has It Increased Over Time? Corny News Network, Purdue Extension. http://www.kingcorn.org/news/timeless/PlantingPace.html [accessed Apr 2022].

Silva, George. 2018. When is the Best Time to Plant Corn in Michigan? Michigan State Univ. Extension. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/what_is_the_best_time_to_plant_corn_in_michigan [accessed Apr 2022]

Thomison, Peter and Steve Culman. 2019. Corn Management Practices for Later Planting Dates: Changes to Consider. C.O.R.N. Newsletter, Ohio State Extension. https://agcrops.osu.edu/newsletter/corn-newsletter/2019-10/corn-management-practices-later-planting-dates-–-changes-consider [accessed Apr 2022].

USDA-NASS. 2022. Crop Progress (archives). USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. https://usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/8336h188j. [accessed Apr 2022].

Wiebold, William. 2019. Planting Date and Corn Yield. Integrated Pest Mgmt, Univ of Missouri Extension. https://ipm.missouri.edu/IPCM/2019/5/cornPlanting [accessed Apr 2022]


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