Summer has arrived and the growing season is in full swing. And while the planting season largely got off to a great start, a number of regions have experienced challenging conditions: from wet, soggy areas in Southern states to wind, hail and frost in the Midwest to expanding areas of high heat and drought conditions over large swaths of the west and the Great Plains — including 41% of corn production acres.
Taken as a whole, the regional weather events and other factors led the USDA to recently dial back 2021’s yield projections for corn and soybeans by about 3%.
Strip-till and cover crops are often said to be practices that can help mitigate climate and weather extremes by improving water infiltration, moderating soil temperatures or, in the case of cover crops, simply providing a protective armor for the soil.
But 2021 is showing that there are exceptions to these principles, like any other law of nature, and it’s not always clear why. Such was the case with some very late frost events in the upper Midwest.
Like many other farmers in the area, Lake Mills, Iowa, strip-tiller Ben Pederson’s farm got hit by the late frost events this past May, and he saw more damage in fields that had cover crops than in fields without covers.
Pederson, the 2021 Strip-Till Innovator Award winner, theorizes that fields with more residue were hit harder when the frost came because the soil was already cooler than normal due to abnormally chilly temperatures in May.
“It wasn’t a hard frost — it was 32-34 F — and it wasn’t cold for that long,” he says. “But down in the microclimate where the soil hadn’t warmed up much where it was covered, it did get cold enough to kill the some crops, whereas the conventionally-tilled soils across the road weren’t affected.
“And the fact of the matter is that if it had been a degree or two colder, everything would have frozen, regardless of tillage system,” he adds.
The damage caused by the late frost was selective, Pederson says, but led to some replanting for him along with many other farmers in the region.
“The corn was small enough that most of it is coming back. It’s a little uneven, but didn’t need replanting. The soybeans got hit worse, and we had 300-400 acres that to varying degrees had to be replanted. Probably only about 100 acres was completely dead,” Pederson notes.
Interestingly, he adds that it wasn’t always the lowest fields in the area that got hit the worst. “There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to why one soybean field needed to be replanted and another one didn’t.”
But with the optimistic outlook common to many innovators, Pederson says he won’t let one bad experience deter him from continuing with his cover cropping practices.
“I’ve got enough other reasons why we’re doing this that I’m not going to throw it away for one frost event,” he says.
That positive spirit and confidence in being able to tackle tough challenges is alive and well in the strip-till community and is a good inspiration when dealing with life’s inevitable setbacks.
And while an innovative attitude can’t change the weather or guarantee higher yields, it can certainly help keep you advancing toward your goals and on track to achieve them.