Rob Sharkey of rural Bradford, Ill., stands next to his tractor and sprayer on May 10. With a cool rain falling and temperatures over the weekend dipping down, Sharkey said he was delaying his plans to plant. As soils dried off and warmed up, farmers around northern and north-central Illinois are making haste to get corn and soybeans planted.
Rob Sharkey of rural Bradford, Ill., stands next to his tractor and sprayer on May 10. With a cool rain falling and temperatures over the weekend dipping down, Sharkey said he was delaying his plans to plant. As soils dried off and warmed up, farmers around northern and north-central Illinois are making haste to get corn and soybeans planted.

BRADFORD, Ill. — On Twitter, it’s called #plant13 and is being used by farmers and agribusinesses to track the progress of a planting year that has many farmers on the edge of their seats, if not in their tractor cabs in the fields.

“At some point, the calendar starts trumping your fundamentals,” said Rob Sharkey of rural Bradford in Bureau County.

Sharkey spoke on May 10 in the lodge of his hunting outfitting business. Outside, a chilly rain was falling steadily, and temperatures over the next two days of Mother’s Day weekend were forecast to dip close to freezing.

“The ideal spring would be an April 15 start with the ground temperature being perfect and the soil condition being perfect — that’s the ideal one,” said Sharkey, who had not started planting.

Last year, he came close to that, planting a small plot on the last day of March — “I wanted to plant in March for once,” he said — and the rest of his corn and soybeans around that April 15 date.

This year, it’s a different story.

Cool, wet weather that included a couple of late-season snow events has kept many farmers in the northern and north-central parts of the state out of their fields later than they normally would be. Sharkey said May 10 is a date that is a bellwether date for many farmers.

“It’s in a lot of guys’ minds, that May 10 date. After May 10, a lot of people feel you start losing yield. How much yield? It depends on the year,” he said.

Farming on his own for 15 years, Sharkey tries to remember the latest year he can — 2009, and stay positive.

“The best corn I ever grew was in 2009, and I didn’t get into the field until May 21. But it ate up so much money drying that corn, I don’t want to do that again,” he said.

Sharkey said he’s tried to focus on his fundamentals, how he wants conditions to be when he plants his crop.

“You just want to keep your fundamentals. In my mind, I want the fundamentals. I want ground temperature and ground condition. I don’t want it too wet or too cold,” he said.

But when asked when the turning point is, when the calendar overrides that, Sharkey admitted it was close.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Let’s just say I’m not too far away from it.”

In farming long enough to learn from past mistakes, Sharkey said this is a year to rely on that experience.

“I guess I’m getting seasoned enough that I’m drawing on past mistakes. I’m trying to be patient this year,” he said.

That is until he sees the neighbor’s tractor the day before heading out to plant.

“I tell myself fundamentals and we’ll stick to them and then I’ve got a neighbor who goes out and kicks up dust and it just gnaws at you all day,” Sharkey said.

He noted that planting is the time of year when farmers make their biggest roll of the dice.

“This is the most stressful time in farming — it’s planting. You don’t know if the decisions you’re making are right with timing, with soil conditions. You’re talking big money between the differences if you go out this week or next week,” he said.

While in the eastern Corn Belt, conditions might seem the exact opposite of the 2012 drought year, Sharkey said this year could be another good example of why crop insurance and a strong safety net is so vital for American agriculture.

“Last year, we started out fantastic. I remember looking at those crops and thinking this is going to be a bumper crop. The other thing is although there is a decent-sized window to plant corn, the later you start planting corn, the more you can start dropping yield. In that case, if we stay wet and stay cool and then dry up or heat up, we could easily have a worse year than last year,” he said.

But once he gets started, Sharkey said the new technology can help shorten the planting time.

“The technology we’ve got in the tractors definitely helps. It takes some of the fatigue off so we can run long, long hours,” said Sharkey, who said he guessed he would take a week for corn and a week to plant soybeans.

On May 14, he was in his fields, planting corn. The conditions are different further north.

“The early corn is starting to come up right now,” said Dustin Spears of Martz-Spears Farms in rural Carroll County. “We could get all of our corn in by May 16.”

Spears has been farming with his father-in-law, Tom Martz, for eight years, and he also is a DeKalb seed corn dealer.

“We’re about two-thirds done, and in five more days, we should be done with corn. About half of my customers are done with corn,” Spears said.

He added that this year has seen quick emergence of even earlier-planted corn.

“Last year, we got in the fields two weeks before this, but the corn sat there for two weeks. This year, the corn is popping right up,” said Spears, who said they started planting April 28 this year and April 5 last year.

Spears noted that even though farmers worry about planting, when the window opens, they can get planting done quickly.

“As farmers, we worry about it all spring, and then if you give us a week or two, we can get it done,” he said.

He said that the soil conditions in the Carroll County area have been favorable.

“There were a couple of days when it was marginal, but we’re pretty hilly, so we dry out good,” said Spears, who noted that even with late planting, the big question mark of growing season weather remains.

“It’s coming up faster than it has in the last few years, and at the end of the day, we might look good. It all depends on what happens with the rest of the summer,” he said.

For Kimberly Meier, who farms with her family near Ridott in rural Stephenson County, planting Pecatonica River bottom ground has given her some perspective in her 18 years of farming.

“I have probably 5 percent of our corn planted. For some of our ground, it’s one of our later years. For some of the river bottom ground — I’ve read so many times that people are getting nervous — we’re a little more laid back because we have had so many years that it’s wet,” she said.

But she did say that even with that experience, 2013 is shaping up to be one of their later planting years.

“We’re starting to get a little antsy. This is definitely one of the later years,” she said. “Especially after a year like last year when it was so early.”

Meier Farms raises corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa, some of which goes to feed for Meier Meadows, the family’s dairy operation.

“It almost makes silage a little bit easier. Good silage corn is shorter season,” Meier said. “This might mean we’re chopping in September rather than August.”

She said that with late planting, attention will turn to the frost date in the fall.

“The concern will be when it is going to freeze this fall. I’m more worried about grain production if we get an early freeze and the corn isn’t mature,” she said.

Meier also noted the major differences that can occur in planting conditions in fields just a few miles apart.

“I planted a 100-acre high ground field, and it could have stood a half-inch of rain. Two miles away from the river bottoms, I tried to go down there, the water is basically gone, one puddle in the field and I can’t get through it. Two miles up the road, the dust was flying so much I could hardly see the planter,” she said.

Meier also observed that one factor making the long wait seem longer was, for many farmers, a lack of spring fieldwork to do.

“One thing that makes it seem longer is so many more people got fall work done earlier. They had anhydrous on and tillage done. Everybody had everything done last fall, so we had nothing to do this spring,” she said.

Emerson Nafziger, crop production specialist for the University of Illinois Extension, said the most planting progress has been made in the north.

“There was a fair amount of planting near DeKalb. Driving from (Champaign) up and north of Bloomington, the tilled fields got more numerous and some had been planted. I didn’t see any that looked like they were in perfect shape to work and plant — they are still fairly wet. The most progress has been in the northern and northwest part of the state,” he said.

Nafziger said that some planting has occurred in the western part of the state, too.

“We had a fair amount planted at the Monmouth research center before rainfall stopped that, and they had some chances to do some near Quincy, as well,” said Nafziger, who said that planting around the state has been delayed.

“Far southern Illinois has not had quite as much rain. I think they got a little bit planted. Our south-central area is pretty much sopping wet. There might have been a little bit planted in the first week in April. It’s certainly no big areas with everything planted.”

Nafziger said that while comparisons to 2009 are inevitable, the crop progress ultimately will depend on the weather for the rest of the growing season.

“It was an unusual year in that we had cool and wet all season long, and we ended up with really pretty good yields. I don’t think we can take a lot of lessons from that or turn it into an expectation, but certainly it makes us know that the good yields are still possible. We’ve been saying all along that we are heavily dependent on what happens during the growing season than when we get it planted,” he said.

“It’s going to continue to be the case that rainfall in July and August are going to be a lot more important than what happens now.”

Nafziger said that the combination of constantly-improving seed genetics and seed treatments mean that seeds are better prepared to survive in less-than-perfect planting conditions.

“We have a pretty decent stand planted on April 5. It was wet and cold and poor conditions. It came up in about three weeks, which was when we expected it, and the stand is pretty good. That is the remarkable thing, to illustrate that corn seed can emerge under those conditions. Thirty years ago, we would have had to replant that,” he said.

“It’s a range of things. It starts with the genetics, the way the seed is harvested and handled. The seed treatments certainly do help against diseases. The result is a seed that’s just about as good as it can get in terms of its ability to come up.”

In Lee County, Andy Pratt of Grand Prairie Farms in rural Dixon, said progress has been good.

“We’re probably 65 percent planted with corn. We were planting again today,” he said on May 10. “The soil is improving. It’s in pretty good shape. The wet spots have gone away.”

Pratt said that planting conditions have appeared to get better north of Interstate 80.

“From 80 north, the further north you go, the better it gets. Carroll County and Ogle County are in better shape than we are. By the end of next week, most of this area will be done planting,” he said.

Pratt said he was comfortable with the timeframe, even though it may be a little later than usual.

“By the calendar, maybe we’re a little late, but by the heat we’ve had so farm, we’re not behind. We haven’t lost any heat we would have had by having the corn in the ground in April,” he said. “We’re normal for the temperature timeframe.”

Pratt, who farms with his father, Mike, and brother, Peter, said he’s happy with the progress of their early-planted corn.

“Some of the early corn is out of the ground, I saw some corn up. Now maybe we can slow down, relax and enjoy it a little more,” he said.

In western Illinois, Hunt Farms in Blandinsville, had planters rolling by May 14, but on May 10, Colby Hunt, president of the McDonough County Farm Bureau, could describe conditions in his part of the state in two words.

“They’re wet,” he said.

Hunt, who has been farming with his family since graduating from college in 2003, said this is shaping up to be one of the later planting years he can recall.

“We’re 30 percent planted on corn. We planted 60 acres around April 15, and then we got that seven-inch rain and planted more and then we haven’t been planting for over a week now,” said Hunt, who said they were anxious to get back to getting the crop in.

“We’re nervous. We bought an additional planter, so when we get started, we’ll be ready to go full force.”