Chris Hardie: Polar vortex dis-May

Chris Hardie: Polar vortex dis-May

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If April showers bring May flowers, a May polar vortex messes with your cortex.

Mother Nature was a little unkind during Mother’s Day weekend, as mind-numbing cold weather dipped into the Upper Midwest and brought ice and snow all the way into the northeast.

Record low temperatures were recorded across the country. In my neck of the woods, the thermometer dipped to 14 degrees in Cataract, located between Sparta and Black River Falls.

We typically get nipped by frost through the end of May, but not the middle-teens. We have not planted any annuals yet, but we’ll soon find out if the frigid temperatures damaged our lilacs or apple trees.

It’s a terrible incongruity to mention polar vortex in the same sentence as May. But the Arctic air mass sent me grumbling back to the woodpile to once again start the outdoor boiler.

It also creates agriculture challenges. Cranberry grower Jim Hoffman turned on sprinklers overnight at Goose Landing Cranberry, just north of Alma Center. His cranberry vines were just coming out of dormancy with some bud swelling. The coating of ice protects the buds. He said other cranberry growers flood their beds to prevent the buds from freezing.

Even before the rude interruption of winter, there are many signs of spring. The hummingbirds have returned and our creek bottoms are blooming with yellow marsh marigolds.

Also called cowslips, water buttercup or marybuds — the wildflowers grow in mounds with heart-shaped leaves and large buttercup-like yellow flowers. There is a profusion of the flowers this spring. They were always a favorite of my late great-aunt Sara Clair.

The cold snap interrupted what through the first week of May was favorable weather for spring fieldwork across the state. The USDA said as of May 3 nearly 60% of spring tillage was complete, which is 16 days ahead of last year — the same pace as corn planting, with 32% complete.

The cold temperatures may put a damper on some of the planting, as soil temperatures may not be warm enough. The soil temperature threshold for corn is 50 degrees. As of this writing the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association reported soil temperatures at 4 inches ranging from 44 in southeast Wisconsin to 37 in the northwest part of the state.

While there are cold tolerant hybrids, the University of Nebraska says corn can undergo a process called imbibitional chilling. I like to imbibe a bit when I’m chilling out, but that’s not a good thing with corn.

Corn absorbs water within the first 48 hours after the seed is planted. When the temperature is below 50 during that time it can slow germination and delay seedling emergence. Apparently when corn seeds imbibe water, cell membranes stretch and cells expand. Water is densest at 39 degrees, so cold water imbibing can result in damaged corn seed cell membranes.

So I have one thing in common with corn seed. I’m pretty sure I’ve damaged a few of my cell membranes from over-imbibing a time or two that was related to being dense.

But to answer the eternal question of to plant or not to plant, research from Iowa State University Extension says there is a smaller yield loss with very early planting dates and larger yield losses with significantly delayed planting dates. We certainly saw that in 2019 when cold weather and flooded fields delayed corn planting.

So I guess the answer, as Jerry Reed would say, when you’re hot, you’re hot. And when you’re not, you’re not. Whether it’s rolling dice or planting corn, it’s a gambling game.


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