From the Field – Agronomy Notes: Vol. 5, Num. 5

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April 30th-

After a brief pause, transplanting season has resumed and moves ahead at a fast pace. We were fortunate that the Coastal Plain was largely spared from widespread frost damage, as temperatures managed to hover between 32 and 34 degrees in many places where tobacco had been planted to a large degree. I’ve not had a tremendous amount of feedback regarding damage, so I’m taking that as good news across the board.

If I had to guess, I’d probably say that we’re close to 50% planted in the Coastal Plain. We’d probably be well past that figure, but last week wasn’t overly productive for the reason previously discussed. We’re just kicking off the show in the Piedmont, so plantings have to be less than 5% out that way. This week is much better from a temperature perspective, but we are in dire need of rain. Our research team has been planting at the research station in Kinston this week, and to be frank, I can’t recall a time in my career when soil moisture conditions were so deficient this early. Between the return to warm daytime temperatures, low humidity, and a lot of wind, the seedlings are struggling to recover from transplant shock. My best hope is that we can get a good soaking rain of about an inch or so in the Coastal Plain fairly soon (although this doesn’t look very promising).

The next issue staring us in the face is a transplant shortage. I felt that the supply would be tight this year, given the massive expansion in acres but that may have been underestimated on my part. I say this for two reasons. First, I’m getting calls from Agents, farmers, and industry asking if I know where extra seedlings can be found. Second, by this time of year, we typically have a good sized list of growers with extra plants for sale. Four names have been added to that list so far…and one’s already been removed. If you have extra plants, please let your local County Agent know and we’ll get your name on our list!

Bottom-line, we need to be mindful that the flexibility of replanting because of poor growing conditions is probably not a great option in 2021. For that reason, we are encouraging growers to do everything possible to mitigate stress on young plants. One way to do this is to be mindful of the products being used in transplant water solutions. The first thing that comes to mind is transplant water fertilizer, as I’m not entirely sure that we’ll see the dramatic vigor response under the current growing conditions. We typically observe this response under cool, damp soil conditions  –  neither of which are plaguing us at the moment. I’d also suggest thinking about hard about the pesticides that are included in the transplant water solutions. Frankly, there are some that are essential under certain circumstances and others that probably don’t have the impact that’s advertised. If there was ever a time to exclude the non-essentials, I absolutely believe it to be now  – as there are extenuating growing conditions that could reveal issues we wouldn’t expect to see in a normal scenario. To go along with this, growers should consider increasing their transplant water application volume, where possible. For example, if a grower applies less than 100 gallons of water in-furrow, they might consider increasing the output to 125  – 150 gallons per acre. In sandier areas of the state, and where irrigation is not possible, 200 gallons per acre may be advisable. I realize this is an extremely high water volume, but it could be a difference maker for some in the more severely drought prone soils. As long as plants are not floating out of the soil after transplanting, I’d live with a higher than normal transplant water volume.

Finally, in addition to dry conditions (and probably one of the root causes of the current conditions), I have major concerns about the wind. We’re already hearing of substantial wind/sandblasting damage to young transplants. Where possible, I encourage growers to strongly consider irrigating. My rule of thumb is that a good, soaking one inch of water is a great place to start. In sandier areas, 1.5 inches might be worth considering. This recommendation is being made with the knowledge that irrigation capacity is one of our biggest limiting factors in North Carolina, so try it where you can. The short range weather forecast does not give us widespread rainfall potential, but there is a chance for isolated showers next week. Don’t bet this crop on those showers. My guess is that we’ll have some winners, but most of us may be losers in this situation and the risk is not worth it. Irrigate if at all possible as it will help hold some of the soil in place (for a time) and will help these young plants recover from transplant shock and/or moisture stress.

I do wish I had better news and better suggestions to offer, but we’re in stretch of environmental conditions that I’ve not experienced so early in the season. The last 10 days have been hard on this crop, and we need to soften the blow as best we can.

As always, we’re here to offer a helping hand in trying times  – so please remember to contact your local County agent for any information or assistance needed!