Making the best of a mess

From the time hurricane Isidore arrived, producers have been struggling through mud and water in efforts to salvage the crop and avoid financial ruin. There have been several “victims” of all this. Among them are worry and stress that have taken a toll on farmers and their families. Expensive machinery has been subjected to use and abuse equivalent to several “normal” crops. And not least of these has been the damage done to fields.

Fortunately for a few farmers, harvesting was completed in time to avoid most of the damage, but for the bulk of them the next challenge will be how to repair damaged fields, drainage systems, roads, and turnrows in time to plant next year’s crop. This is especially difficult since the normal flow or cash during and after the crop does not allow for the kind of expenditures that will be required. Equal to the work itself will be the problem of how to pay for it during a time when profits are low, and most farmers have spent their budget for the current year. Funds for the next crop are not normally available until the spring of the following year, but this year some way must be found to pay for extra work, fuel, and machinery. In many ways, this rather than poor yield, low quality, and low price will be the hidden disaster of the 2002 crop.

Damage to fields has been so extensive that for many the normal job of shredding stalks, a requirement of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, will be difficult or impossible because of deep ruts and continued rains. It seemed that about every time fields began to dry and firm in the fall of 2002 another front arrived to deliver another one-half to one inch of rain to re-saturate the land. In reality however, most fields will require extensive disking and renovation, so stalks will be destroyed, but they may not be destroyed in the timely fashion that is needed.

We know what the problem is, and we have some idea of how to repair the damage to fields, but another question is when the work can and will be done. Ideally, this situation could offer farmers a chance to correct old drainage problems, change row directions or patterns, and fix some of the things that have been needing attention for years. With adequate funding, this would be an opportunity to have soils tested and have fertilizers and lime applied during the tillage operations in order to mix these materials into the soil, one of the perceived “problems” of reduced and no-tillage agriculture. However, funds will likely not be available to take advantage of this opportunity. Very likely, the fields will be reworked, re-bedded, and another crop planted without the addition of needed fertilizers and lime, making the prospects for good yields next year questionable.

Another disappointment this year has been a setback in the establishment of reduced and no-tillage systems throughout the South. These systems have proven their worth in reducing costs and producing yields equal to or higher that those from more intensive tillage systems, but as I told one farmer last week, “The rule book is out the window”, at least until we can get the damage repaired.

The best-case scenario would be that winter rains will decrease soon so that farmers can get started with field repairs in January. The first order of business will be to fill the ruts in fields. Then, the job of re-establishing the surface drainage must be considered. We certainly do not want to leave fields in such a situation that water stands in some areas during planting and causes problems for growing the crop next year. Next will come the construction of new rows. Prior to and during this step, lime and fertilizers should be applied according to soil test results. Then the “ideal” thing would be to plant some type of cover crop such as wheat or oats to begin the process or rebuilding organic matter and to hold the freshly tilled soil in place.

Some time in mid March, the fields will need to be treated with herbicides to dry down the cover crop and any volunteer winter vegetation so that they will be clean and ready for planting by the time we normally begin planting cotton. For corn, this will be a little late, so the application of burndown herbicides for corn may need to be a little earlier. In actuality, few farmers will plant cover crops, and will simply re-hip the rows prior to planting; when this is the case some soil loss will be expected on sloping fields if spring rains come as they usually do. In this scenario, the re-establishment of reduced or no-tillage systems will have to wait until next fall.

A final question will be how to get through the harvest next year without re-damaging fields so that the rows can settle during the winter of 2003-2004. Another wet fall next year could really “put the icing on the cake” for most people. It’s tough just thinking about how to come out of this “mess”, but somehow it will get done.

Dr. Ernie Flint is an area specialized agent – agronomy for Carroll, Montgomery, Holmes, Attala, Leake, Madison, Scott and Rankin Counties with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

e-mail: [email protected]

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