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How Do Farmers Know When to Plant?

“When Mother Nature gets her act together,” is my brother’s response to that question. 

This year it seems like Mother Nature is really moody. The weather this spring, at least in our area, is wet and cool. As of the date of publishing, we haven’t started planting yet. Not one seed has gone in the ground. And that has a lot of farmers on edge. 

So seriously, how do farmers know when to start planting? The answer depends on a number of factors.

Soil Temperature

It all comes back to the dirt! 

Farmers test soil temperature to make sure it’s warm enough to support a seed’s ability to grow. If it’s too cold, the seed will sit in the ground and do nothing. And if it sits too long, it won’t grow at all. Using a basic thermometer, we want the soil to be at least 50 degrees before we plant.

How wet the soil is matters too. Ideally, we’d like to plant in dry soil followed by a moderate amount of rain. If there’s too much moisture in the soil, then the seed could rot instead of sprout. If it’s too dry, the seed will just sit there.

And people say farmers don’t care about soil!

Air Temperature

The importance of air temperature varies a bit depending on the crop. Generally, if the temperature is too cold and we have a freeze, it can damage tiny plants. We don’t normally run into that problem with corn. But with some crops, including soybeans, it can be a major issue. Fruit and vegetable growers are especially concerned about this.

Calendar

The date is the other big factor. Even if we had a week of 80 degrees and dry weather in February, we’re not going to plant. Why not? Because likely the winter weather would return, and the crop isn’t going to survive. So we wait until late spring before starting. 

Just Do It

When push comes to shove, we can’t always wait for perfect conditions before planting. Sometimes it’s too wet. Sometimes the air temperature isn’t as warm as we’d like. And sometimes the date on the calendar starts pushing back. So often planting happens in less-than-ideal conditions. 

By the way, there are deadlines for how late we can plant. Crop insurance is only available for corn and soybeans planted before a certain date. And there’s a more practical point here: winter is coming. The crop only has so much time to grow and dry out before it snows. The later we plant, the greater the risk we’ll run into inclement weather during harvest. 

The right time to plant will vary based on temperatures, weather, and the calendar. It also varies by geography. It’s just another calculus farmers have to make.

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