I like receiving questions from farmers and agribusiness professionals — easy questions as well as the toughies that involve a bit of research. Long ago, I learned that farmers respect an “I don’t know” response, which is much better than trying to bluff one’s way through an answer. Not only is the latter unethical, but farmers have very good “blarney” detection systems, so honesty is the best policy.
What’s much better is “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out.” Years ago, a fellow from a farm supply company was promoted from local feed store manager to a position in on-farm dairy and field crop sales. His technical knowledge consisted mostly of what he’d picked up over the years in managing the store, so it’s not surprising that especially early on there were a fair number of questions from his farmer clientele that he couldn’t answer. However, he was conscientious about first saying that he didn’t know the answer and then going about finding it, often darkening my door with crop-related questions. Farmers respected this honest approach and the fellow went on to a long and successful career.
Following are questions I receive this time of year with answers that will hopefully be light on the blarney!
Q. Some of my corn plants have ugly, light-colored growths that almost completely replace the ear. If harvested and ensiled, will they harm my cattle.
A: No, not at all. What you’re seeing is almost certainly corn smut caused by a pathogenic fungus. This is a common occurrence in corn fields, more often in sweet corn. What you’re seeing is the disease gall packed with fungal spores. The pathogen infects the corn kernels, causing them to swell up to form a gall with a texture not unlike mushrooms. Eventually these galls burst, releasing millions of black smut spores. Some farmers notice the spores coating the heads of corn choppers. Smut galls aren’t harmful to cattle; in fact, in Mexico the immature galls, called huitlacoche, are considered a delicacy and are used in soups and as fillings in tacos and quesadillas. The problem with corn smut isn’t that it’s toxic but that every smutinfected ear represents a small yield loss. Smut spores are killed by the highly acidic conditions present in corn silage, but if the corn plants are chopped and fed fresh, the spores can pass through the animal’s digestive tract into the manure. Then, when the manure is field-applied these spores can be the source of future smut infections.
Q. Where should we spread manure this fall? We have more manure than usual because the past spring was so wet that we couldn’t spread as much.
A: If you apply manure to a growing crop such as grass or alfalfa, or prior to drilling a fall cereal crop such as triticale, some of the nitrogen in the manure will be “sequestered” (stored) in the plants. Therefore, in this case, earlier is better since crop growth is much slower in October than in September. Most of the ammonia in the manure will be lost in topdress applications, with the amount of loss influenced by how soon and how much rain falls after application. If you apply manure on fields that will be planted to corn again in 2018, incorporating the manure by tillage will improve nitrogen retention. Research has shown that it’s not necessary to moldboard plow to increase the nitrogen efficiency of dairy manure; even a light tillage pass will help. Rate is important; it’s generally better to apply a lower rate of manure to more acres than to apply a heavy rate on a smaller acreage. But take soil analysis into account: Some fields — especially those close to the livestock barn — may already be sky-high in fertility. Pay special attention to any fields that will be seeded to alfalfa or alfalfa-grass. If soil potassium levels aren’t at least medium this land would be a good place for a relatively heavy application of manure.
Q. How late in the fall can I seed alfalfa and alfalfa-grass?
A: In much of the FARMING magazine readership area, September is already too late to seed alfalfa. The term “fall seeding” is a misnomer; “late-summer seeding” is a much more appropriate term. In most of New York and New England, alfalfa seedings should be done no later than August. My experience is that if there’s enough soil moisture to promote quick germination, seeding in early August is better than late August. Pure grass could be seeded in September, but be particularly cautious when seeding alfalfa-grass. (The possible exception is reed canarygrass, which is slow to germinate and less frost-tolerant than other grass species.) One year the contractor for a natural gas company had just completed some pipeline installation at Miner Institute and its agreement called for alfalfa-grass to be seeded in established hay fields after the work was completed. But by the time the contractor got around to seeding it was well into September. I told him that seeding alfalfa that late would have a poor chance of success but they went ahead and seeded anyway. Both alfalfa and grass germinated but the alfalfa didn’t have nearly enough growth to overwinter before the first killing frost. The contractor — sadder but hopefully wiser — was back the following spring to re-seed those areas.
Finally, whenever possible, rely on local or regional sources for crop information. A crop advisor, especially a certified crops consultant, is usually a reliable source. Some seed dealers have a good knowledge of their seed products and can be excellent sources of information. This is also true of the better commercial pesticide applicators who have experience not only with how the various herbicides are supposed to work but also how they’re performing in farmers’ fields. It’s easy to get answers to crop-related questions, somewhat less so to get informed ones.