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CropTalk: Unplanted Acres: Utilizing the Silent Partners in Your Soil

July 2019

Published on Thursday, July 04, 2019

Spring of 2019 will be one that sets the standard for challenges. Farmers are resilient and went to great lengths to get the crop planted, but in low-lying, wet areas of many fields, there was no opportunity to plant row crops. So now, in addition to managing crops, many farmers must also manage their unplanted acres.

No farm is an island. Your seed supplier, equipment dealer, banker, landlord, custom applicator, and agronomist — you think of each of them as partners in your enterprise. Well, you’ve got a silent partner working around the clock in your favor, giving your plants an added boost that you don’t think about until it isn’t there. You might be thinking of nodule-forming Bradyrhizobia in soybeans — but that is a bacterial association. Today, I want to turn your attention to the even smaller plant partners: the fungi.

The Silent Partner

Plants are carbon factories. Photosynthesis is a great mechanism for taking CO2 out of the air and turning it into more useful molecules like sugars. To access all other nutrients, plants rely upon the root system to mine the soil. Constructing a root system is expensive — it requires a lot of carbon and other nutrients. To reduce pressure on building a massive root system, plants form associations with a class of fungi called mycorrhizae, specifically, a group called vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae (VAM). Plants trade sugars for nutrients — particularly phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen, and micronutrients. In a way, the VAM increase the surface area of the root system.

Back to those wet holes and parts of the field that may be fallow today. In areas of the field that have no growing roots, fungi are going to have to go hungry all year. Remember that VAM are your silent partners on the farm — they make the most of the fertilizer you apply. You might not notice your silent partners are missing until 2020.

In the spring of 2020, when your corn crop emerges, you might see size differences right away. Areas that are fallow this year are likely to have smaller, weaker corn plants next spring1. Corn in those areas might look phosphorus deficient. Remember the key role that VAM play in mining phosphorus?

Ultimately, fewer VAM means a less efficient plant and can mean fewer bushels. A widely cited study2 from the USDA pegs the value of VAM at 12 bushels of corn. Twelve bushels of corn is enough to warrant making an effort to support your silent partner. 

What Can You Do Today?

Make sure that there is something growing in those wet holes. Preferably, something that won’t add to your weed seed bank, a cover crop. Cover crops allow you to support the VAM in your soil, reduce the yield penalty you might see next year, and manage weed pressure all in one fell swoop. One important note though more than 80% of plant species form these mycorrhizal associations, the brassicas (think radish and rapeseed) aren’t as friendly to the fungi — so be sure they are blended with non-brassica species in a mix. Beck’s offers a complete lineup of cover crops to match your goals. Contact your local Beck's representative to place an order today.

To learn more about fallow syndrome, see the white paper on the agronomy resources tab of the Beck’s website or talk to your local Beck’s representative. 

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Samantha Miller
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Samantha Miller

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