Crop Scouting: Part 1 - Tips and Tools

More than 70 crop scouts from Iowa and surrounding states gathered in mid-May at Iowa State University’s Field Extension Education Lab for a hands-on crop scouting workshop.

More than 70 crop scouts from Iowa and surrounding states gathered in mid-May at Iowa State University’s Field Extension Education Lab for a hands-on crop scouting workshop.

ISU experts touched on everything from staging corn and soybean growth to identifying problem weeds, insects, and diseases.

“Whether a farmer scouts himself or hires a scout, the program delivers an accurate estimate of plant health and pest densities, an identification of pests present, and a diagnosis of any crop injury, at a minimum,” said ISU Extension Field Agronomist Angie Rieck-Hinz.

“You’re looking for anything abnormal. To help ensure you don’t bias your scouting by looking only at abnormal situations, use a zig-zag, M-shape, or other pattern that you vary to get a representative look at the field. Subdivide fields into a more manageable size by limiting your scouting trek to about 50 acres. Stop every 5 acres or so at random to take a close look at the corn or soybean plants, above and below ground, and inside the plant, and note what you see.”

Rieck-Hinz says it’s important to remember that people and farm equipment mostly work in straight lines, while nature does not. “Your tillage, planting, fertilizing, spraying, and harvesting equipment will produce more straight-line patterns, but soils, landscape position and pests will produce irregular patterns,” she said.

Early scouting to check stand counts, uniformity of emergence, furrow closure, compaction, and wetness is crucial to making any decisions on replanting. But early stand assessments are also important for treatment decisions that may need to be made later in the season, said ISU Extension Cropping Systems Agronomist Mark Licht. “Generally speaking, V3 is about as late as you want to conduct stand assessments. If you have gaps of missing corn, ask why,” Licht advised. “Don’t be too worried if your estimated population counts vary from 2,000 to 3,000 plants per acre, but if you see 5,000 variations you need to investigate more. That could be a row unit not working on the planter. You don’t want plants too close, or skips.”

If there are skips, it isn’t necessarily the planter. Dig to see if the plant germinated, or if it leafed out underground and died. “Is a skip a planter problem, a seed problem, a weather issue, or what? You have to diagnose a little before you can fix the problem,” Licht said.

“If emergence is really uneven, ask yourself why,” Licht said. “Why is there a stage difference? Is it the depth of seed? If your crop has only a stage or two difference, you’re not too concerned. But if it has a 4-stage variation, it will affect herbicide response, and you’ll see yield differences as those plants compete for nutrients, water, and sunlight.”

Licht said his favorite scouting tool is a flat bottom spade. “I can break open the seed furrow and keep the soil intact,” Licht said. “Once you break it open, you can see seed depth, evidence of sidewall compaction, and early season root growth. You can use the flat bottom from emergence through V3 and learn a lot about your crop.”

See examples of tips and tools in the photo gallery below.

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