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Diagnosing a Cropping Problem in the Field

Knowing you have a problem is good. Knowing exactly what problem you have is even better.

You have to keep a close eye on your crops—any problems that arise need to be identified and, if necessary, taken care of quickly to avoid loss of plants and revenue. But once you think you have a problem, how do you determine just what that problem is?

Diagnosing crop problems can be tricky, but with the right knowledge and procedures, growers can accurately determine what is affecting their crops with relative ease. Comparing plants, looking at field history and knowing what problems other local farmers are facing are good places to start.

Look for a pattern

The first step in determining what might be affecting the plants is by simply categorizing symptoms in the field to find out what patterns may exist. One way to do this is to compare problem plants with healthy plants. When comparing the two, look at

  • The visual characteristics of the plants, such as color, stand height and roots.
  • The results of any field tests for disease presence or nutrient content.
  • Soil probe test results that identify soil compaction and soil quality.
  • Field characteristics, such as low spots or wheel tracks.

Consult the record

Another way to diagnose problems in the field is to look at the field's history. Past records of a field can be very revealing, especially if the field has not been in your control for long. Some things to look for in a field's history are:

  • Pests that have affected the field in the past.
  • Prior field preparation information, as in conventional till versus no till.
  • Weather data, including past droughts or floods that leave standing water.
  • Management practices, such as planting dates.
  • Equipment issues that could have impacted seeding depth or skips.
  • Seed treatments.
  • Pesticides that could have left residues.
  • Soil characteristics such as pH, salinity and pans.

Be aware of local problems

In addition to keeping an eye on their own fields, farmers should keep track of problems that their neighbors might be having as well. It is very common for farmers in the same area to be facing the same issues.

Farm news reports, Extension reports and occasional chats with your agronomist or local Extension agent can help you stay on top of local disease threats. Many universities publish localized alerts for diseases in certain crops on the Web and set up telephone hotlines so that farmers can call in and get area alerts.

Final assessment

If the problem is still not apparent, collect soil, insect and plant samples and send them to your local lab. It is always possible that you are battling a pest that is not easily identifiable-many disease, insect pests or nutrient problems exhibit similar symptoms and are difficult to diagnose correctly without additional testing. The results of the lab test should pinpoint the issue.

It's important to remember this: Before taking action in the field, be sure to accurately diagnose the problem affecting the crop. If you think there is a certain disease affecting your crops, but you are not 100 percent sure, you don't want to waste money on chemicals that won't fix the problem.

For more information on diagnosing crop problems, please consult your local Southern States Agronomy Expert or local extension office.

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