Capital Press

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- Matt Gellings thought his prayers were answered when showers arrived a few days after he planted his hard red spring wheat.

Looking back, he blames that late-April storm for causing one of the greatest early season challenges he's faced in 40 years of farming.

Gellings is among about 30 irrigated grain farmers in the Osgood area, located northwest of Idaho Falls, whose wheat was hindered from emerging by a crusty layer of dirt formed by rain and hail impacting sandy silt-loam soil.

Gellings, president of Bonneville County Grain Growers, said many farmers opted to plant seed a bit deeper this season due to a lack of soil moisture, and cold weather contributed to lethargic subsurface plant growth. Wheat tillers lacking the energy to breach the crust grew laterally, curling and withering when they eventually emerged.

Gellings estimates about 30 percent of his initial stand has been lost. He chose to reseed another 30 pounds per acre, adding about $45 per acre in extra seed and fuel costs. It was the first time in his career he'd ever replanted. Upon discovering the crust, he initially hoped to soften the soil by irrigating two weeks early.

Many of his neighbors broke up crust with rotary hoes to facilitate growth. In fields where tillers were already poking through the soil, other growers succeeded in softening the top layer with irrigation.

"My neighbor across the road, he said, 'You've got to be patient,' but I was just out there looking at dead plants and thought, I've got to do something," Gellings said.

Though his drill damaged many tillers when he re-seeded, Gellings is optimistic he'll get a normal stand. With grain at two different growth stages in the same fields, however, he'll have to adjust his herbicide program to kill weeds early on and leave mature grain standing longer before harvesting while the second growth matures.

He believes barley grows more vigorously than wheat, based on barley fields that haven't been adversely affected by the crust.

Where his crust was the worst, Osgood grower Gary Dixon re-drilled two wheat fields with another 50 pounds of seed per acre. His second application is just now emerging. On other fields, he broke up crust with a rotary hoe.

"The rain was harder on some fields than others. The lighter the dirt, the easier it crusts," Dixon said. "It looks like we've got a stand and we're going to have a pretty good crop, I think."

Osgood grower Derek Reed conducted an experiment in dealing with his crust. In two fields, he broke up the crust using a rotary hoe. He used a spring-tooth harrow on a third field. He also left a 2-acre strip untreated for comparison. He said the strip he left alone "definitely looks a lot worse," and the rotary hoe appears to have done the best job.

In the past, Reed has waited to see evaluate emergence before deciding whether to mechanically break up crust.

"We did get on it early. Our wheat had just barely germinated," Reed said. "Our thinking was maybe we'd do a little less damage to it rather than waiting until it was up ad starting to turn over under the crust."

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