It is time to assemble a good set of diagnostic tools as the planting season approaches and field visits will be needed. A beginner’s tool kit should include but not be limited to a magnifying lens, sharp knife, soil probe, tape measure, small shovel, notebook, digital camera, GPS, zip lock bags, sharpie markers, disposable gloves and flags. Small, plastic jars with caps can be used to collect insect specimens.

A good set of reference guides, such as identification keys, compendia and fact sheets should also be an integral part. Local commodity boards and universities generally publish handy diagnostic guides with colorful images.

Visit fields with an open mind. Gather any relevant weather and historical data if available. When you notice some unusual signs or symptoms, inspect above- and below-ground parts. Use the shovel to dig plants to assess root health.

In diagnostic work, timing can be everything. A good example last year was when some soybean growers noticed stand problems. They suspected it was due to poor seed, but they waited until late July to complain to their seed dealerships. At this point in the growing season, it was too late to ascertain why seeds did not geminate.

Use the notebook to keep written records of all the information you collect with dates. In some cases, a good digital photograph attached to an email may be all that is needed for a lab expert to identify a problem.

When soil problems are suspected, take representative soil samples from good and bad areas in the field. Make note of any obvious field patterns. A lot of field problems can be associated with a malfunctioning sprayer, planter or fertilizer applicator. Soil compaction is another common culprit. Herbicide carry-over or drift problems are other considerations. Weather-related injuries such as cool soil temperature at germination, frost, hail, excess rain, thunderstorms, wind and lightening damage can occur in Michigan.

In certain situations, an interested party may try to lead you to a wrong conclusion. If you’re not sure, rely on the local network of extension experts, diagnostic clinics, labs and websites for help. For list of resources available from Michigan State University, visit the Integrated Pest Management Publications page.

Correct identification is the first step in any successful scouting program. It can save valuable time, effort and money for farmers.