For farmers, the first signs of spring mean ultimately getting back on their fields to spread manure, fertilize grasses and plant crops. The time to do these chores varies depending on where you farm, but the order in which they should be done won’t vary much. Following are some suggestions as farmers begin another year of crop production.

Fertilizing perennial forages

This isn’t spring “planting,” but for any farmer growing perennial grasses – and this includes mostly grass pastures as well as fields harvested for hay or silage – early spring is critical. That’s because some form of nitrogen, either fertilizer N or animal manure, should be applied to these fields just as the grass begins spring growth or as soon after that as possible. A wet spring may delay application but every effort should be made to do so as soon as field conditions permit, even if the grass is already 6 inches high. That’s because nutrients have a hard time getting past the dense, fibrous root system of established grass and any nitrogen not used by the first crop should be available for the second one.

By spring many manure storages are full and farmers are looking for places to spread. However, early spring grass fields are often soft, especially if there was a heavy cover of snow, and running over these fields with a tractor and manure spreader – even a tanker with wide, low-pressure tires – can cut up fields. However, this depends to some extent on the species of grass in the field. Grass species with fine root systems including timothy, orchardgrass and smooth bromegrass won’t support spring field traffic nearly as well as a species with a rugged root system such as reed canarygrass.

At Miner Institute in Chazy, New York, we were often able to spread urea in April on a long-established field of reed canarygrass with field conditions that were so wet that water was running off the tractor tires. But we never made a rut as the dense canarygrass root system provided all the support the equipment needed. Reed canarygrass has fallen out of favor with many dairy farmers because it has lower forage quality than most other grass species, but tall fescue (another cool-season grass with high yield potential) has a root system that more closely resembles canarygrass than it does other forage grasses. Will this be enough to make a difference in spring manure application? Not sure, but if you have an established field of tall fescue it may be worth a (cautious) attempt.

The “when” of spring N application to grass depends on the particular situation, but not the “if.” In fact, the economics of grass production rests to a great extent on that first crop, which represents a greater proportion of total annual yield than with alfalfa or alfalfa grass. We did research at Miner Institute on grass fertilization, applying 100 pounds of fertilizer N just as the grass started growing in the spring. Compared with the unfertilized plots, N fertilization more than doubled first-cut yields and increased the crude protein content of the grass from less than 12 percent to over 18 percent. This all happened in the approximately five weeks from fertilization to harvest. What else can you do on a farm that will double yields and greatly increase forage quality in only five weeks?

Spring seedings

On most farms forages should be seeded before corn planting begins. This is especially important if a companion crop such as a spring cereal (usually oats) or a cereal-pea mixture is seeded with the forage. That’s because as both crops begin to grow the cereal crop can aggressively compete with the smaller-seeded legumes and grasses for soil moisture and soil moisture conditions are usually better in the early spring. Seeding equipment: Where soil phosphorus levels are good either a broadcast drill (such as a Brillion Seeder) or a grain drill with band seeding capability can be used with good results. However, if soil-test P levels are low, my strong preference is for use of a grain drill since with a drill the fertilizer can be applied in a band under the seed row. Research has shown this method of phosphorus fertilization to be several times more efficient than broadcast P application. Many farmers wouldn’t dream of planting corn without any fertilizer in the hoppers, but the same principle holds when seeding forage crops: Supply phosphorus-containing fertilizer at such a time and place that the germinating seedling has ready access to it. Alfalfa and grass roots head straight down after the seed germinates, which is why the fertilizer is placed directly under the seed row. This used to be a much more common topic a generation ago when soil test P levels on dairy and other livestock farms were generally lower. However, as dairy farming has intensified – more cows, and therefore more manure, per unit of land – soil phosphorus status has increased so there are fewer fields with low soil test P levels.

One reason Brillion Seeders have been so popular with farmers despite their lack of fertilizer hoppers is that they don’t bury the seed too deep and do an excellent job of firming the seedbed during seeding. This is also possible with new and old grain drills, especially if they’re equipped with press wheels that trail behind the seed tubes. If neither a press wheel drill or a Brillion Seeder is used then the soil should be firmed right after seeding with a roller or cultipacker (I prefer a cultipacker). “Right after seeding” means within a day or two, not a week later. Firming the soil following seeding is important, but in some cases the seedbed may have been tilled so much that it’s fluffy and should be firmed before as well as during or after seeding. The goal is to have a seedbed firm enough prior to seeding that a boot imprint is no more than the thickness of the sole. (A possible exception to this rule of thumb would be a fat farmer with small feet!)

Fertilization more than doubled first-cut yields and increased the crude protein content of the grass from less than 12 percent to over 18 percent.

Corn planting

Corn planting typically starts after soil temperatures are at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit at a depth of 4 inches, but farmers with a lot of corn to plant sometimes push the envelope and start a week or so earlier. The climate has changed in the past 30 years or so due to global warming and or climate change, so you should actually measure soil temperature instead of planting at the same calendar date your father (or grandfather) did. How aggressive a farmer needs to be about starting to plant corn depends on how much corn he or she has to plant. It’s not nearly as important when you start planting corn as when you finish. That’s because the first corn planted often isn’t the highest yielding, but as planting extends past the ideal planting window – the last week of May in much of the northeastern U.S. – yield potential begins to decline.

About as important as soil temperature is soil moisture status. Farmers will have much more success planting into soil that’s borderline low for temperature but dry enough to plant versus planting into a cold, wet soil. It’s better to wait until the field is ready to plant, even if it’s a week later, than to “mud in” a field. Cold injury to germinating corn is much more of a problem in wet soils.

Another factor that permits the planting of corn slightly earlier than farmers did a generation ago is much more effective seed treatments. In the old days seed corn treatment was done by the farmer as a planter box application. Adherence of the seed treatment – typically containing insecticide and fungicide – was often somewhat less than ideal, in part due to the occasionally lousy job farmers did in mixing the treatment with the seed corn. By the time the corn kernel was placed in the seed furrow much of the treatment wasn’t on the seed and it was susceptible to attack by seed corn maggots and the fungi-causing seed rots.

Most seed corn (unless it’s for organic production) comes pretreated by the seed company, which is much more effective and one less thing for farmers to do. Precision corn planting equipment has also resulted in more uniform seed placement. All of these contribute to better results from early planting. We used to recommend that farmers overplant seed corn by about 15 percent, but we’ve come so far in germination percentage, pest control and planting equipment that some seed companies recommend overplanting by only 5 percent, increasing the overplanting rate to 10 percent under challenging conditions such as very early planting or cloddy soils.

In summary

Spread nitrogen fertilizer or manure on established grass fields as soon as the grass starts growing. If you can’t do it then, later is better than not at all.

Seed forage crops into a fine, firm seedbed, paying attention to the soil test phosphorus status of fields to be seeded. Band fertilizer application is more important if soil test P is low.

Plant corn as soon as temperatures at 4 inches soil depth reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit. How much risk you take in planting earlier than this depends on soil conditions and how long you expect it to take to complete corn planting. When you finish has more impact on yield than when you start.