Corn School: Coping with sidewall compaction and emergence challenges

The hangover effects from a wet fall are giving farmers in parts of Western Canada a headache this spring.

Saturated soil conditions right until freeze-up forced fieldwork that normally happens in fall to be delayed until spring. As a result, heavy harrows, vertical tillage machines, traditional cultivators, and even fire — all the tools in the toolbox — were used this spring in an attempt to deal with residue and dry out the soil enough to get the crop in the ground in a timely fashion for the limited growing season in southern Manitoba.

“A lot of our soils here are clay to heavy clay soils, so they’re not forgiving if we start working them in the spring,” notes Brunel Sabourin of Antara Agronomy in this Corn School episode. “It turns into cement…and it makes for big issues when the corn germinates and is trying to penetrate that dryness.”

As a result, growers and agronomists on the eastern Prairies have seen emergence issues in corn and other crops due to sidewall compaction or smearing, as the seed struggled to push its root through the rock-hard sides of the furrow created by planter discs in wet, clay soil.

“Because our soils were worked wet, we squeezed all the air out of them, and as they dry, they shrink, so the furrows were opening up and becoming really hard. We had issues where corn was germinating, but then drying up. You’d see the roots following the furrow trying to penetrate the bottom of it, and so it’s really made for challenging emergence,” he explains, standing in a corn field near St. Jean-Baptiste, Man.

Those compacted furrows were only the first problem, as working the soil in spring also left fields without any “soil armour,” says Sabourin.

“Because we overworked our fields this spring trying to get them into shape, it left the soil surface really black. So when we did finally get rain, when it hit, it pulverized that surface, sealing it off, and creating a crust. So yeah, we got the rain to help germinate, but now the crops are having to fight through the crust to get out,” he says.

In the video below, Sabourin discusses the challenges with emergence and explains what he’s observing in a corn emergence test, with popsicle sticks marking days-to-emergence across several rows. Check out the video or podcast below for more on lessons learned from the 2020 corn planting season in Manitoba:

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