Waseca research center experiments with February crop plantings

March 16, 2024

Monday morning agronomic scientist Tom Hoverstad dug into the loose, dry dirt of a small Southern Research and Outreach Center test plot and found a few kernels of sprouted corn.

Four 90-foot rows of seed corn were planted there by the University of Minnesota center’s staff on Feb. 26, a rare winter day when air temperatures in Waseca peaked at 69 degrees. Researchers also planted small patches of spring wheat and soybeans in adjacent test plots.

Southern Research and Outreach Center researcher Jeffrey Vetsch paused while looking for seedlings emerging from tilled soil in a test plot on the SORC’s campus in Waseca. “I think what we are seeing is milder winters for Minnesota, especially our Novembers,” he said.

“In no way whatsoever are we suggesting farmers should be out planting. These test plots’ purpose is to be a demonstration of the effects of this season’s unusual weather,” said Jeffrey Vetsch, a researcher at SROC.

The “crazy notion” of planting seeds before spring’s arrival was just a way to show what can happen in February in Minnesota, Hoverstad stated in an online SROC article.

Southern Research and Outreach Center researcher Jeffrey Vetsch checks the soil temperature in a test plot where a few rows of seed corn were planted on an unusually warm day near the end of February.

This winter has been the warmest on record for the Waseca area, Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist, stated in the web posting. Nevertheless, the risk of frost damage to corn seedlings remains.

“I think what we are seeing is milder winters for Minnesota, especially our Novembers,” Vetsch said.

Growers should beware of planting on the Ides of March — or at anytime between now and April 11, the earliest allowable planting date for Minnesotans with crop insurance.

During his stop at SROC’s demonstration site Wednesday, Vetsch found no evidence of emerging seedlings in any of the test plots. He used the visit as an opportunity to take a soil-temperature reading from a thermometer staked in the tilled ground near a hill of planted corn. Soil needs to be at least 50 degrees for successful corn seed germination, he said.

SROC records daily weather data and provides reports on information collected within 24-hour periods. Thursday through Friday’s average soil temperature reading was 47 degrees for measurements taken at depths of 2 inches. The air temperature during that time period reached 56 degrees.

Vetsch said nighttime air temperatures this month have regularly dipped into the 30s. If the trend for comfortable air temperatures continues, soil temperatures will rise.

Forecasts indicate rain and cooler weather is on the way for the region, potentially bad news for the test-plot corn kernels. Being cold and wet would make the sprouts susceptible to disease, Vetsch said.

Then again, the sprouts could experience a jump start on their growth.

“If we see more of this mild weather continuing, farmers might be able to start (planting) in early April,” he said.

In the meantime, crop farmers are not idle; they are making good use of an opportunity to get into their fields early.

“There’s been activity out there pretty much all winter. They are applying anhydrous fertilizer, doing manure injections, applying lime and repairing tile,” Vetsch said.

When they are done with those chores, farmers may spend their time hoping for rain so their crops have adequate moisture.

About 62 percent of Minnesota, including the Mankato region, was listed as being in moderate drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor report, which was released Thursday. Drought conditions are likely to persist in the region, according to the monitor’s predictions.

Starting Monday for several counties north of the region, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is restricting the open burning of vegetative debris due to increased wildfire risk resulting from unusually warm temperatures and exceptionally dry conditions across most of the state.