A near perfect stand of nice, green wheat plants poking their 2-3 leaves out of the dark, moist soil yesterday afternoon reminded me of how truly blessed I have been this fall. It was Thanksgiving week, and there is nothing quite like the sun shining down on a healthy looking crop to make a farmer thankful – unless it is a blanket of snow that comes just before a week of below zero weather, or, come to think of it, a well-timed rain in the spring, or finishing harvest just before a rain. You’ve got to appreciate when the weather breaks your way, because you know it can break just as badly against you.
For me this fall, it is more than just being thankful for a nice looking crop. Only God knows why, but I have once again been undeservedly rescued from a minor disaster of my own making. We had an abnormally wet September this fall – the kind that makes farmers nervous thinking it might start raining and never quit before snow, making it hard to get fall work done. I usually plant sometime in the last week of September because of soil disease considerations. The rain that week pushed seeding well into October, but In spite starting late, I carefully took the extra time to calibrate my drills the best I could, a process that is ultimately as much art as it is science. I finally finish seeding October 8, and at that point, I discovered my seeding rate was off.
Not just off, but off by 20-25%! You buy seed in bulk, auger it from your truck into the drill and pull the drill around the field as the drill meters the seed into the ground. When you finish the field, an acre counter on the drill will give you a rough idea of how much area has been covered, but you can only guess at how much seed is left in the drill. When all the seeding is done, you return what seed is left to the seed dealer and weigh it. Only then do you know exactly how much you have been putting on. On top of that, not one, but two of my three acre counters quit working! Without them, I couldn’t even make a rough guess. I could have taken a half day to replace them, but because I was already a week late, I decided to keep seeding.
There are about 200 diseases that attack wheat, 50 of those routinely cause economic damage, and a big share of those attack the plant within the first month of growth. For most of those diseases, there is no pesticide that will economically stop them. There are routinely used fungicides and genes for resistance that control things like karnal bunt, loose smut, stinking smut, and other funny sounding names that I am not making up, but there are a whole raft of ‘rots’ and ‘spots,’ plant killers that are beyond control. There are also insects, wireworms, the larvae of click beetles, that feed on the roots so heavily, they can kill young plants. Lucky us, we have more species than anywhere else in the world. It is critical to sow enough seed that after the gauntlet of insects and diseases, you have enough survivors to make a healthy, productive stand that effectively competes with weeds.
Because of a history of wireworm populations on my farm, I elected to spend the extra money for an insecticidal seed treatment for wireworm. For decades, lindane, a long lasting organo-chlorine, was the material of choice for this insect. It has been replaced by nicotine analog insecticides that are much more environmentally friendly. I wasn’t too worried about soil insects thinning my stand, but bad weather can help soil diseases run rampant. In the second week of October in the Palouse, the weather can do ANYTHING, and odds are it would be bad for my messed up planting.
We had great soil moisture from all the September rain, followed by that lovely dry, sunny, and warm October where every seed could germinate in soil that was not too warm and not too cold. They pushed their leaves into the warm sunny days, and practically every seed established a healthy, vigorous, young plant. As they reached the 2-3 leaf stage, the most winter hardy stage, nights started getting frosty, encouraging the plants to harden themselves against the coming winter.
No amount of money in the world, no power or technology of man, could have fixed my planting error any better. It has been a Happy Thanksgiving.