Renewable Farming

More ways to manage dry-weather stress this crop season

March 19, 2022: By Jerry Carlson  More than 40 years ago, I freelanced a booklet for Amchem titled, Farming With Tomorrow’s Wild Weather. It became a collectors’ item on Amazon’s used book market, and is now out of print. But like a lot of journalistic forecasts, it’s finally relevant this season. 

Today you have more weatherproofing strategies than 30 years ago: Cover crops. Minimum tillage. Restoring soil biology and moisture-holding organic matter. But those strategies take years to build resilience into your soil and cropping plans. What can a corn-soybean, conventional tillage grower do this season?

On March 8, crop consultant Bob Streit listed a dozen precautions you can take this season to buffer the impact of a hot, dry July-August stretch. 

I’ll bullet-point some other ideas, but first take a look at the annual rainfall graph compiled by cover-crop and soil health enthusiast Wayne Fredericks, who farms in northeast Iowa near Osage. (For Wayne’s full video presentation at the recent National Cover Crop Summit, start with this link.) Since 2003, seasonal average rainfall here in northeast Iowa has gained five inches — a huge improvement, if you can capture and keep that moisture available to crop roots. This chart is consistent with longer-term Iowa annual precipitation data compiled by Elwynn Taylor, extension climatologist at Iowa State. 

The long-term U.S. Drought monitor map (below) shows the Southwest drought as “Extreme” in much of Texas and Oklahoma. Elwynn Taylor’s previous seasonal forecasts have noted that Midwest droughts often migrate from the Southwest into the central and western Corn Belt.

Clay Pope, farmer and rancher at Loyal, OK, wrote a cautionary column in Southern Plains Perspective, suggesting that Plains growers need a “drought plan” for 2022. You can browse through his suggestions at this link.

Moisture-management suggestions:

You already know the customary precautions: Back off plant populations a bit. Plant into warm, moist soil for quick germination and rooting, rather then trying to plant too cold, too early. Planting before a cold rain can chill germination; wait until soil warms again. 

1. Take a thorough look at data on the stress-resisting endophyteBioEnsure developed by Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (AST). This season, AST is packaging the seed treatment version, BioIQ, with extra talc for uniform coating of seeds. You also get the benefits of talc lubricant for uniform flow through your planter. 

AST has learned from field experience that some farms’ water reduces spore viability, so they’re prescribing a simple preventive treatment to neutralize your local water. 

Our tests on corn with BioEnsure and its companion bacteria product, BioTango, have shown clear-cut gains in early root growth. The combination of the fungal endophyte, BioEnsure, with BioTango generates vigorous rooting. An abundance of mycorrhizal fungi greatly expands the crop’s ability to extract moisture and make soil nutrients soluble for root uptake.

You can also foliar-apply these products on growing corn or soybeans if your extended forecast looks doubtful. But we’d favor early treatment. In-furrow application is our favorite. You can piggyback these organisms with pop-up fertility and other biological stimulants such as Vitazyme, placing them right where emerging roots can benefit immediately. Including biological enhancers such as humates can amplify beneficial root fungi and bacteria.

2. Your own high-clearance sprayer could prove extremely valuable this season — for Y-dropping liquid fertilizer, foliar feeding mineral nutrients a small amounts of NPK, and foliar-feeding products such as calcium silicate (Mainstay Si). Crop consultant Streit recommends Mainstay Si from Redox. This increases water use efficiency. When we’ve used this on sweet corn, we saw a 17% gain in leaf thickness  and an almost 5% increase in sugar, to 22 brix. In commercial field corn, that response would translate to more yield potential, stress resistance and grain test weight.

Traditional advice on foliar feeding says that a drought-stressed crop won’t benefit much from foliar feeding. But that observation comes from years ago, before WakeUP Summer was available to greatly enhance your sprayer’s leaf coverage, nutrient absorption and nutrient translocation through the crop’s phloem circulation. One veteran foliar feeding farmer in southeast Iowa, Keith Schlapkohl, says “Foliar feeding won’t work” without ways of getting nutrients into the crop’s metabolism. A complete spray-water treatment for maximum effectiveness being used by a growing number of farmers is:

a. WakeUP as your crop-friendly surfactant/mobilizer.

b. The Pursanova water activation system.

c. Pursanova’s unique reverse osmosis instrument. You can see a PDF diagram of the complete water treatment system at this link

3. Monitor crop health with tissue tests. Or better yet, get familiar with sap tests, which give you about a month more time to foliar-feed in response to mineral deficiencies in the crop. New Age Laboratories in Kalamazoo, Michigan, describes benefits of sap testing, plus offering the service. The key technique: Measure nutrient contents of older leaves compared with emerging leaves on the same plant. Since crops “rob” nutrients from older, lower leaves if roots aren’t delivering enough for new growth, deficiencies show up in old leaves first. 

We didn’t find any of the labs certified by ALTA, the Agricultural Laboratory Testing Association, which offers crop sap testing. In 2015, we did some soybean sap testing on our Renewable Farming strip tests fields and filed a report at this link. Currently, Crop Health Labs of Bellville, Ohio offers sap testing. The largest database of sap testing knowhow has been accumulating in the Netherlands since 2002.

4. When planting beans into heavy no-till cornstalk residue, an early spray of a quick-acting residue digester can help turn stalks from tough yellow to fragile dark gray, helping warm soil for quicker germination. Here’s an example of a new residue muncher that appears to act fast. Warmer soil in the seed row is one goal of strip till and trash whippers. 

5. Can a spray-on surfactant reduce evaporation from soil? We don’t claim that with WakeUP, but several firms offer soil “conditioner” products for lawns and golf courses that supposedly reduce needs for irrigation. Out of curiosity, several years ago we poured 8 ounces of water diluted 1:50 with WakeUP into a 12×14 inch flat open pan, and set it in a warm greenhouse. For comparison, we used a labeled rate of a commercial crop surfactant in 8 ounces of water, and poured it into an identical flat pan.  After two weeks of evaporation, we poured remaining water back into 8-ounce jars for comparison. Most of the WakeUP-infused water had not evaporated, while most of the water in the comparison pan had evaporated. However, the normal dilution of WakeUP for crop use is 1:256 or less — one ounce of WakeUP per two gallons of water. We’ve also noted that an ounce or two of WakeUP in a wick-type humidifier sharply drops the evaporation rate. Apparently the sharp reduction of surface tension in water has an effect on evaporation. This needs more research with good instrumentation. 

6. Here’s a recipe that could help protect emerging beans and corn from early spring frost.  In 2010, we learned that 5 ounces of WakeUP and 2 pounds of sugar in 12 gallons of water foliar-sprayed on young crops had a short-term frost-protecting benefit. One “test bed” was a 3-acre patch where we harvested sweetcorn in July, then sowed oats and planted soybeans. When forecasters predicted a Sept. 26 overnight low of 29 degrees, we sprayed the Sugar-laced WakeUP mix in strips across our test patch in late afternoon. The nearby photo shows results the following morning: Beans in the sprayed strips looked wet, glossy and remained undamaged. Beans in the unsprayed areas were severely frostbitten.

Here’s our theory: WakeUP mobilized the sugar into soybean leaves uniformly, raising the leaf and stem brix level overnight. That protected plant cells from freezing during the five-hour low of around 29 degrees. Oats, of course, weren’t hurt at all. Unsprayed volunteer corn leaves were singed by the frost, but corn can recover from frost if the growing point doesn’t freeze.

Years later, a WakeUP client in north central Iowa phoned me one morning in late April to ask, “I have 100 acres of soybeans pushing the first trifoliate leaves. The weather forecaster is warning I’ll have a low of 28 tonight. Anything I can do?” I suggested prayer first, then foliar spraying WakeUP and sugar. He had WakeUP in the machine shed, and snagged 200 pounds of sugar in 40-pound bags from a wholesaler. By that afternoon, he had covered 100 acres with his big pull-type sprayer.

I called him two days later and asked, “How do your beans look?” He said, “Hard to tell. They were hurt some, especially in the low spots. It got down to 29 for a few hours.”

I called him again after harvest to ask how that field turned out. “Surprised me. That 100 acres had my best yield.”

Renewable Farming doesn’t have random-rep data on WakeUP for frost protection, but we’ve long known that WakeUP plus sugar and mineral nutrients foliar-fed at V2 accelerates metabolic activity in young crops. Our original recommendation more than a dozen years ago was spraying WakeUP at V2 to V3, amplifying sugar formation in the roots — which generates a burst of mycorrhiza around the root. Sugar first forms in the leaf, then translocates throughout the plant. About half flows through the phloem system to roots, to feed soil organisms which make soil nutrients soluble.

Another thing we know: Pure concentrated WakeUP in the jug will not freeze, or even get cloudy, left outside 24 hours in 25-degree-below temperatures.