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Ag experts advising patience for Indiana corn farmers

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Southwest Indiana farmer Brian Schroeder is concerned about when he's going to finally be able to start planting corn and other crops this spring because his fields are so water-logged from heavy April rains, and more rain is in the forecast for the first week of May.

"Everything is ready to go and we're sitting here twiddling our thumbs," Schroeder said.

It's a familiar story throughout Indiana. As of Sunday, farmers in Indiana had planted just 1 percent of the corn crop, compared with the five-year average of 30 percent by the end of April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service reports. A year ago, when 40 percent of Indiana was listed as unusually dry as the state was headed into a drought, farmers in the state reported they had planted 67 percent of the state's corn crop.

Nationwide among key farming states, 5 percent of the corn crop is planted, down from 49 percent a year ago at this time and the five year average of 31 percent. In states surrounding Indiana, Ohio had 2 percent of its crop planted, Illinois had 1 percent, Michigan didn't have a report and Kentucky had 24 percent, which was half of its five-year average.

Schroeder said he had his entire corn crop planted last year by April 13. He has yet to plant any corn in his 3,000-acre farm in Freelandlandville in Knox County, 70 miles north of Evansville.

"We try to be done with corn by the 15th of May at the latest," he said.

Above-average rainfall has have prevented that in most of Indiana. In Indianapolis, 8.59 inches of rain had fallen in April as of Tuesday, nearly 5 inches above average and just .01 below the record of 8.60 inches set in 1893, the National Weather Service reported. Lafayette also had received nearly 5 inches of rain above average at 8.35 inches. Fort Wayne had the third-wettest April on record at 7.1 inches, 3.69 inches above average.

Elsewhere, Terre Haute received 7.48 inches of rain, Muncie 5.77 inches, Valparaiso and Bloomington 5.15 inches each, and Evansville received 3.86 inches, which was 0.34 inches below normal.

Associate state climatologist Ken Scheeringa said he doesn't expect things to improve until at least mid-May, saying the forecast for the next week or so is a continuation of above average rain and below normal temperatures. He said the longer forecast is "wishy-washy" saying there is an equal chance of having above or below temperatures and precipitation for the rest of the month.

"So we're not looking for a whole lot of change in the next 10 days," he said.

Purdue University agricultural experts are advising farmers to be patient. Purdue corn specialist Bob Nielsen said conventional wisdom in much of Indiana is that the prime planting window to maximize corn yields is between April 20 and May 10. But Nielsen said the calendar has little influence over yield, saying weather the rest of the growing season is a much bigger factor.

"Technically, we've got plenty of time," Nielsen said. "We know from experience that if we are forced into planting in late May or even early June, that if the rest of the season is perfect, we can have great yields even though we're planting so late."

Nielsen and Purdue agronomist Tony Vyn advise farmers to stay out of the fields until they dry out. Vyn said farmers shouldn't till fields until a day before they plan to plant because it can cause soil to compact, which can be worse for yield than delayed planting.

"The yield potential in the seed depends in part on preserving the best soil structure possible," Vyn said. "So just because the field is dry enough to get across the field and not get the tractor stuck, does not mean that the soil conditions are fit for tillage and for planting."

Vyn points out that in 2009, when bad weather led to the latest corn harvest in almost 40 years, Indiana farmers saw their best-ever corn harvest per acre.

"As of this point, we're no worse off than 2009," Nielsen said.

Nielsen said farmers can plant the crops quickly, saying it's common for 30 percent or more of the corn crop to be planted in a week and he's seen as much as 50 percent of the state's corn crop planted in a week.

"So in that context, there's plenty of time," he said. "The big unknown is whether Mother Nature is going to allow that to happen."

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