By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
PAYSON, Ill. -- Well under way in a planting season with its earliest-ever start, Art Witte is thinking about another first.
"We're talking about stopping planting corn, then starting in about 10 days so it's not all ready in the fall at the same time," said Witte, who farms 4,000 acres in the bottoms on both sides of the Mississippi River in Adams, Pike and Marion County, Mo. "Otherwise, it's all going to be mature at the same time. If it's mature, it's capable of being knocked down by harsher weather ... and we can't get to it all within a week."
Near-perfect conditions put Witte and other farmers into the fields weeks ahead of schedule.
"Usually, we would start around the first of April. This year, we started the 14th of March, but you don't usually get continuous 70s, near-80s all through March," Witte said. "The earliest I ever planted before was March 21. This year, by the 21st, it was up."
The early start carries some potential risks -- and some benefits.
"If we have a dry summer, it should help by being more mature by the time the real dry hits," Witte said. "The only thing I see that could hurt it is if we have a late April hard freeze or frost, but as long as the growing point is below the ground, and the growing point comes to the top of the ground at roughly 6 inches tall, frost today wouldn't hurt. A hard freeze when it gets bigger could kill it."
But Witte believes it will be a warmer growing season.
"It's continually been warmer," he said. "We must be in a warmer cycle."
Warm weather aside, some farmers haven't headed into the fields.
Carthage farmer Rod McGaughey said he probably would be planting, but he's waiting for a part to fix a broken steel hydraulic line in his planter.
"On the other hand, I'd be a little hesitant until after the crop insurance date, the fifth of April," McGaughey said. "People planting before that technically are not covered by crop insurance. You pay good money for the insurance, so to jump the date is probably not real smart."
With certain types of crop insurance, planting before Thursday means farmers can't collect under the option which covers the costs involved in replanting. Coupled with that, "there is a shortage of the in-demand seed corn. If we did happen to get a late frost and it causes those plants to die, they would not be able to provide the same seed to growers. That caused people to hold off, too," said Mike Roegge, University of Illinois Extension local food system and small farms educator. "There's a handful of guys done with corn, but far more haven't started yet."
It's all a gamble, McGaughey said, to know when to plant.
April 12 is probably the earliest McGaughey has ever planted corn, but he'll likely beat that this year.
"The only reason not to is fear of what's to come. On the other hand, we've had nice short dry spells like this before followed by a month of cold wet weather," he said. "I think some of us were kind of hoping it will rain to take the decision out of our hands. Rain wouldn't hurt a bit. It's very dry."
Last spring's rains fully recharged subsoil moisture levels, which helped crops survive when the rains stopped. Now farmers need some more moisture to help produce a crop.
"There is no subsoil moisture today, and topsoil moisture is running short. Every rain will be a critical rain for this crop," Roegge said. "It's never happened before that guys got ground worked and were praying for a rain the second day of April. This is just unprecedented territory this year."
Cooler temperatures by the end of the week will slow germination and growth, but "we don't worry a whole lot about the fate of seed in dry soil. Wet and warm is not a concern, wet and cold is a concern, but we don't have either one," Roegge said.
Continued warm weather certainly will advance the crop's maturity. Cooler temperatures will slow its progress. "Corn responds to temperature. It's off to a pretty good pace right now," Roegge said.
The focus now is getting corn in the ground, and farmers will wait to plant soybeans. The crop insurance planting date for beans is April 26, and some farmers will wait even longer.
"I like May soybeans myself," Witte said.
A late April frost could force farmers to replant beans, which don't handle freezing temperatures as well as corn, McGaughey said, and some experts say the earliest-planted soybeans often show more signs of sudden death syndrome.
"For several reasons, there's not that big of a hurry on soybeans," he said. "Several years we planted very late and still yielded well. It's a much shorter season crop than corn."
Still, the early, good start to the season is welcome news for farmers.
"After three years of cold, wet slop in the springtime, planting conditions are really good," McGaughey said.