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Early seeding comes with risks

They can be managed but the issues shouldn’t be ignored

As the weather warms, thoughts turn to early seeding — but how to balance the risks and rewards of the practice?

According to crop insurance data, early-seeded crops tend to show increased yields compared to later-seeded crops. But there are risks involved.

For example, nutrient availability and uptake, particularly phosphorus, is severely hampered in cold, wet, and compacted soils. Soil temperatures can be below the minimum needed for germination, and of course frost is a risk to emerging seedlings.

So how does one decide when to roll the dice on early seeding? One of the keys is watching for the ideal conditions to arise. Early seeding doesn’t refer to a calendar date.

If there is still snow on the ground in the first week of May, though it might seem counterintuitive, it may be one of those times to roll the dice — because waiting until the conditions are perfect might mean you’re too late. Likewise, in years with an early thaw and warm conditions in mid-April, there is less pressure on the farmer to get seeds into the ground, so early seeding, while still desirable, may be less critical.

Beyond that, things become more complicated, says Dane Froese, an industry development specialist from Manitoba Agriculture.

“In many cases, this can vary farm by farm and field by field,” Froese said.

For instance, some fields have better water infiltration rates than others. Because they are often the easiest to drive on, that might become a determining factor in whether to seed early and may push the farmer in that direction.

Conversely, there are scenarios where despite the opportunity to seed early, it just doesn’t make sense once the pros and cons are weighed. To illustrate this, Froese used a hypothetical example of a field that, in the first two weeks of May, is too wet for canola — the crop originally planned for the field.

The fertilizer is already down, so seeding dry beans or flax is not an option. Corn could work, but unless early-maturing seed is available, the risk is higher for a later-season crop. Since most crops yield very close to full yield potential up until the third week of May, the farmer, in this case, is better off waiting, because canola shows better promise for achieving full yield potential than corn.

“Cereals, peas, flax, and corn are all well suited to being seeded earlier by calendar date — in that order,” said Froese. But he noted that soil temperature, moisture and seedbed condition should drive seeding date more so than the calendar date.

He also points out that canola, while it can be seeded early, is more susceptible to an early frost, as well as early flea beetle feeding (if predator populations are high and no other food source is around).

Waiting until soils have warmed up to at least 10-12 C is necessary for successful establishment of edible beans.

Other crops like soybeans and sunflowers fall in the middle.

The management of weeds and staging of harvest operations are all important pieces in determining the seeding date. As such, benefits beyond yield can be realized with the right strategies.

Froese pointed out some examples of strategies that can help in gaining these benefits:

  • The earlier a crop can establish, the better it can compete with overwintered annuals or perennials.
  • Because plants grow more slowly under cold conditions, if a crop is seeded too early spray treatment may not work as well.
  • By seeding flax earlier, the crop puts more energy into seed, and less into biomass. So for a producer looking to reduce wear and tear on their combine, having a shorter-strawed flax crop would be helpful.

The important thing to recognize is that while a general trend has been identified connecting increased yields with earlier seeding dates, there is no Early Seeding For Dummies manual to say when to seed early or when to wait.

But if you’re armed with knowledge, logic, reason and perhaps most importantly, flexibility, you can take some of the guesswork out of the equation.

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