Diagnosing Poor Crop Emergence

field scouting

By Harry Brook

“Life is what happens to you while you’re making plans.” This statement also applies to agricultural production. You make plans for a successful crop with the right amount of seed, fertilizer and equipment, then hope for the best. Sometimes, you find spots in the field where something is not working. Time to examine the area closer and figure out what is going on.

There are myriad reasons why a crop isn’t doing well early on. It takes some digging around to start to eliminate the most likely candidates. If the land was recently broken up hayland or pasture and you notice some bare patches, dig around at the margins of the bare areas. It could be wireworm, which should be easy to find in the top two or three inches in the soil. Another possibility could be cutworm. Some feed above ground, some cut the plant off at ground level. Once again, checking the top two inches will tell you a lot.

Mechanical problems can be an issue in seeding. Make sure the machinery is not a culprit, seeding too deep or too shallow. If you see a pattern in the bare patches that is related to topography, it could be the result of varying seeding depth and some seed may be buried too deep. In some cases, stranded seed in the dry topsoil can prevent germination. If soil conditions are too wet it can be something as simple as root rot or roots drowning. Seedlings need oxygen to survive and will die quickly if flooded. Root rots are identified with brown or black roots. Crop rotations with little crop variety may lead to a buildup of pathogens that can attack crop seedlings. Check all parts of affected plants or plants on the margins of the bare area.

Background information on the land is important in sorting out the most likely cause of an issue. Previously seeded crops, fertilizer and herbicide can all be culprits. Application methods, past soil test results, soil texture, organic matter, pH and localized weather conditions all play a part in narrowing down the cause of the problem. Some residual herbicides can create carryover issues with the right weather and soil conditions.

In a lot of cases, there is not a lot that can be done to replace the missing plants, other than reseeding. However, every issue is a learning opportunity and a lesson to ensure it will not happen again. And often, you may never actually pinpoint one cause for the problem, as the cause is several, interacting factors. No amount of technology can replace boots in the field. Seeing for yourself, first hand, is one of the best ways to keep track of the crop’s progress and prevent unpleasant, harvest surprises.

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Or at least the most probable cause. Become informed on the possible causes of a problem so you can prevent the problem from rearing its ugly head in the future. As always, be vigilant and be out, standing in your fields.

Click HERE for more information on field scouting.

See below for a video on crop scouting. It’s from Iowa, but the principles are the same.

Harry Brook is Flagstaff County’s Agricultural Fieldman. He can be reached via email at: or by phone at: 780-384-4138.