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Empty fields in April

Rain and cool temperatures bring the state’s spring planting to an extended standstill
Story and photos by Sarah Geyer 5/24/2018


Planting in Tennessee was put on hold during April due to excessive rainfall and unseasonably cool temperatures. However, many of the state’s farmers, like Somerville’s Alex Armour, above, who raises 2,100 acres of row crops with his father, Harris, were able to get back in the fields the first week of May.
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Excessive rainfall and unseasonably cool temperatures kept Tennessee producers out of the fields for most of April. According the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS)’s end-of-month crop progress report, only 1.9 days in April were suitable for fieldwork in the state.

How will this spring weather affect the year’s crop production?

The Cooperator sat down with member farmers, member Co-op managers, and a University of Tennessee crops specialist during the first week of May to learn the answer.

“I’ve been around 43 years,” says Stan Anderson, assistant manager with Tipton Farmers Cooperative. “And I think this spring ranks in the top five for how challenging it has been to get crop in and with any kind of consistency. Not being able to plant in April means that not only is the farmer behind in planting, but we’re behind with fertilizer applications, too.”

However, as April exited and May entered, so did a much-needed window of opportunity with a predicted several days of little to no precipitation and temperatures in the 70s and 80s.

“We’re happy the weather has changed but being behind means lots of long days and high stress for not only farmers but also our employees,” says Mike Clayton, sales manager for First Farmers Cooperative. “We’re all working daylight to dark; store hours go out the window this time of year. And that puts stress on the staff and the equipment.”

Both Mike and Stan point out that modern farming equipment allows producers to catch up quickly.

“With a good week of running, everyone can catch up,” says Mike.

“Our producers have quite a bit of equipment so they can cover a lot of ground in a hurry,” adds Stan. “This translates into a tremendous challenge for us to react with the services they need.”

With the target planting completion date of mid-April for corn, one of the biggest concerns with this year’s crops is the effect of planting corn in May. According to the NASS report, the state is vastly behind last year’s stats, with only 36 percent of the crop planted as of April 30, compared to 63 percent on that date last year.

One concern, says Mike, is that the later corn is planted, the more likely the yield will be reduced.

“Farmers can still make good yields with corn planted in May,” says Mike. “But they may need to adjust their management plan in-season to try and make up for it.”

Some industry experts predicted corn acres would be reduced and replaced with soybeans as a result of the late-planting season.

“Corn acres are not down as much due to weather as we expected,” says Stan. “Acreage is down this year with other factors such as price, but corn acreage in this area is probably going to turn out better than we thought it would going into the spring.”

Another concern, says Tyson Raper, cotton and small grains specialist with UT, is that planting corn in May can delay getting cotton into the ground and ultimately reduce the state’s planned cotton acres.

“On April 25, I was very concerned that we might not be able to get all of planned cotton acres planted,” says Tyson. “That’s changed with the forecast we have over the next 10 days. At the moment, our soil temperatures are warming up very quickly. It looks like we may have a good window here the first couple of weeks of May to get quite a few of the acres of cotton that we hoped planted.”

As for this year’s soybean crop, Stan says that even though the typical start date for planting is passed, “there’s still plenty of hope there for farmers to have a good year with beans.”

For Somerville producers Harris and Alex Armour, the fifth- and sixth-generation row crop farmers managed to plant their 300 acres of corn between April 11 and 21, along with 60 acres of soybeans.

The father-son team raises a total of 2,100 acres, including 1,200 of beans and 600 of cotton. They hoped to begin planting their early beans the second week in May.

“We’ll plant as much of the early beans as we can before May 10, and then we’ll plant our cotton crop and finish planting our beans,” says Alex. “Last year, I didn’t plant any beans until after cotton, and they all did just fine. ”

The Armours say the timing for planting cotton is more sensitive than that for beans.

“It’s not really a good idea to plant cotton in June just due to the risk for potential freezes in fall,” says Alex. “Although, we have planted as late as June 15 and it ended up being okay. It wasn’t the best.”

The farming duo also points out that not being able to plant until May has affected their grass control efforts.

“We burned down fields with herbicide in April, and now grass is coming back before we’ve been able to plant,” says Alex. “That means we may have to spray one more time than usual.”

“And,” adds Harris, “it may mean that you need to use another chemistry. So it’s going to cost more, whether it’s another trip or a more expensive chemical.”

On the other side of Fayette County, row crop and cow/calf producer John Pattat isn’t feeling as anxious to get in the fields like the Armours and so many other farmers.

“This year, I made the decision to go 100 percent with soybeans,” says John, adding that over the last few years, he’s tapered his mix down from cotton, corn, soybeans, and wheat to grain, corn, and soybeans. “On a typical year, I would have [planted beans] the third week in April. The earlier you start, usually the better you’ll do. But if I can get in the field by the second week in May, for soybeans, that’s not bad.”

Losing a month during planting season might normally bother John, but he says that since he is planting only soybeans, what he’s feeling this year is “more of a sense of urgency.”

“We know that when the time comes to get in the field that it’s going to be non-stop,” he says. “That’s why we’re going back over the equipment to do everything we can to be ready to go.”

The fifth-generation farmer raises 1,800 acres of row crops and about 50 head of beef cattle with the help of a full-time employee and assistance from his 16-year-old son, Connor, and his grandfather, Harold S. Pattat, Sr.

“If we can get it planted in May, I’ll be happy,” says John. “With my big planter, we can plant about 100 acres a day, and we’re going to run our grain drill alongside it, with plans to hit it hard from the start. It’s going to be some long hours when we get going. That’s just part of it I suppose.”

As for burndown, John says he’s waited to apply the chemicals for the last few years and believes it’s saved him some money.

“Since there’s not a waiting period to plant soybeans after chemicals, this year’s last-minute burndown might just save residual application,” says John. “Also, I’m planting Dicamba-resistant soybeans for the first time this year, and I’m hoping that will cut out another application.”

Overall, farmers have been optimistic throughout this year’s rainy and cool spring, says Mike Clayton.

“They’ve had a good attitude for the last month,” he says. “I think because they knew a window of opportunity would eventually present itself, and they were ready to take advantage of it when it did.”


As The Cooperator headed to the printer on May 16, NASS reports that Tennessee farmers have been able to take advantage of May’s warmer temperatures and drier conditions. In their weekly crop progress for the state, NASS cited on May 14 that 86 percent of corn has been planted; 26 percent of soybeans have been planted; and 49 percent of cotton is in the ground.

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