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Published September 02, 2011, 05:45 AM

Strange harvest

BERTHOLD, N.D. — Like other farmers in northwestern North Dakota, Berthold, N.D., producer Mark Birdsall had high hopes this spring because of strong crop prices and plentiful moisture in this often- arid region.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

BERTHOLD, N.D. — Like other farmers in northwestern North Dakota, Berthold, N.D., producer Mark Birdsall had high hopes this spring because of strong crop prices and plentiful moisture in this often- arid region.

“Normally in western North Dakota, our yields are limited by moisture. So we went into the year feeling pretty good,” he says.

Those hopes were dashed as rain after rain in May and June prevented many farmers in the area from planting their crops. As much as 90 percent of cropland in some parts of northwestern North Dakota went unplanted, farmers, elevator managers and others involved in agriculture say.

By one estimate, farmers in Ward County, in which Berthold is located, lost about $107 million because of the unplanted acres, with the overall economic hit to the county pegged at roughly $400 million.

Ward led the state with an estimated 576,000 unplanted acres this year, or roughly 63 percent of the country 907,825 cropland acres

Last year, Ward County ranked second in the state in production of spring and winter wheat, as well as taking the top spot in flax production, third place in canola production and sixth place in barley production, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now, with northwestern North Dakota’s harvest getting under way in earnest, Birdsall and other farmers in the area hope for a strong finish to what’s been the been most unusual growing season most of them can remember.

The wet spring also caused the fields that were planted to be seeded later than usual. Many late-planted fields won’t be harvested until the second or third week of September even if rain holds off.

With crops less advanced than normal, early frost would do more damage than usual.

At the other extreme, several days in late August with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees did no favors for maturing small grains.

“We’re not out of the woods with this crop by any means,” Birdsall says.

Unusual landscape

In a normal year, most small grain fields on the rolling hills of northwestern North Dakota are harvested or ready to be harvested by late August. It’s also common to see grass that’s more brown than green in pastures and hay fields.

Not this year.

Hay fields and pastures are green, even lush. Some producers report second cuttings of alfalfa, a rarity in northwestern North Dakota.

Even more remarkable are the many unplanted fields, now grown up with weeds and volunteer grain. Many of the fields recently were treated with chemicals to kill the weeds, leaving a mass of dead, brown vegetation where healthy wheat, flax, barley or canola would be if fields had been planted.

It’s common to see unplanted fields of brown weeds, often dotted with larger-than-usual sloughs, side by side with thriving grain fields.

Here and there are fields of winter wheat, which were planted last fall harvested in mid- or late August.

“Protein was decent,” but yields of 35 to 60 bushels per acre for the winter wheat weren’t anything special, says John Woodbury, location manager for Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative in Ross, N.D.

Crop “disease, most likely,” he says of the less-than-ideal yields.

‘Box of Cracker Jack’ fields

Harvesting the remaining fields will be an adventure, and not necessarily a good one, Woodbury says.

“I tell producers that this harvest is going to be like a box of Cracker Jack. There’ll be a surprise in every field,” he says, referring to the candy that boasts of providing a toy surprise in each box.

In one field, “You might have great yields and moderate quality. The next one (field) might be even better or worse,” he says.

“I had a grower stop in the other day. He was out swathing some canola and he walked over to a field of spring wheat (to check on it). There was nothing in the heads,” he says.

With so much potential variation in the quality of crops, his elevator may need to take extra steps to keep grain of varying quality separate this year.

“You try to be an eternal optimist. But you need a Plan B. I just hope we don’t have to implement it,” he says.

‘It just kept raining’

Farmers in northwestern North Dakota generally began spring with wet fields after heavy rains last fall and heavy snows over the winter.

“We all knew it was wet going in,” says Birdsall, who’s been farming for 30 years. “But if you’d told anyone (in his area) that they’d only get half their crop in, they wouldn’t have believed it.”

Planting in the area normally begins in the second half of April. This year, wet fields in late April induced farmers to hold off because of the expectation that fields would dry out in time for planting.

In a normal year, that approach probably would’ve worked, Birdsall says.

This wasn’t a normal year.

“We started looking at the fields in April. They were wet. They were wetter in May. They were (still) wetter in June. And they were even wetter in the first part of July,” he says.

In retrospect, farmers might have tried to plant more of their muddy fields in early May, Birdsall.

But even if they had, many of the acres, if they had been planted, might have drowned out later, he says.

Besides, the decision to hold off planting made sense at the time, he says.

“But it just kept raining and raining and raining,” he says.

Numbers from the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network illustrate his point:

Normally, Berthold receives about 2 inches of rain in all of May.

This year, it received about 2 inches of rain May 9 and 10, 1.3 inches May 20 and 21 and 2.1 inches May 30 and 31, with the rain falling on already-wet fields.

By the end of May, Berthold had in the year to date received twice as much rain as it normally does in the first five months of the year.

Rain continued to fall in June. In addition to several small showers, Berthold received about an inch of rain June 12 to 14 and 1.7 inches June 19 to 20, with the moisture falling on already-saturated fields.

‘We wanted to plant’

High crop prices last winter produced crop insurance that should, at least on paper, cover most of farmers’ costs.

Even so, northwestern North Dakota farmers were anxious to take advantage of the high prices and good soil moisture by planting every acre possible, Birdsall says.

“We wanted to plant. That’s the thing I really want to get across. Everybody tried extremely hard to get in every acre they could,” he says.

“Nobody wanted to take prevent plant (crop insurance that pays for unplanted acres.) The coverage levels were somewhat higher this year, but it doesn’t compare to having a crop.” he says.

Farmers in Ward County received an average of $155 per acre in prevent plant coverage, estimates Dwight Aakre, North Dakota State University Extension Service farm management specialist.

If producers in the county had planted and harvested a crop, they’d have received an average of $341 per acre, more than twice what they received through prevent plant, he estimates.

Birdsall stresses one more thing.

Though grain prices have risen in the past few years, “input costs keep ratcheting up to meet those higher commodity prices. We need an excellent crop at excellent prices to come out.” he says.

Why did some fields in northwestern North Dakota go unplanted while adjacent fields were seeded?

Some fields drain better than others, allowing some to be planted while others could not be, Birdsall says.

More importantly, northwestern farmers generally had a small window of opportunity for planting, given the frequent and heavy rains. Producers simply didn’t have sufficient time or equipment to plant all their fields when conditions allowed, so they planted the fields that were driest or closest to where their planting equipment was, he says.

Economic hit

What’s bad for agriculture in northwestern North Dakota is bad for most people who live there, particularly businesspeople who derive all or part of their living from it, Birdsall says.

In addition to farming, he operates Birdsall Grain Seed, which does custom seed cleaning and seed sales.

Seed sales didn’t decline this year, because many of the company’s customers bought seed in anticipation of planting it. But much of that seed wasn’t planted and went into storage. So it will be available for planting next spring, which will hurt Birdsall’s seed sales then, he says..

Other agribusinesses, particularly ones that supply inputs, are bound to suffer when so many acres went unplanted, he says.

Agribusinesses across the state generally remain optimistic, despite wet conditions this year, says Chad Fiedler, who works for Butler Machinery in West Fargo, N.D. He’s president of the North Dakota Agricultural Association, which promotes the interests of agribusinesses.

Still, businesses in northwestern North Dakota will be hurt financially by lost income from unplanted fields.

In Ward County alone, farmers will lose $107 million, the difference between proceeds from prevented planting coverage and what would have been the much higher income from grain sales on acres that couldn’t be planted, according to Aakre’s estimate.

That translates into an overall economic hit of $400 million in the country, using a multiplier, or the number of times money is spent and respent in a community, of 3½, Aakre says.

The Power Lake (N.D.) Elevator Co. definitely will be affected by fewer planted acres in its trade area, says Doug Eckert, station manager.

Fewer acres planted and harvested mean fewer bushels for elevators to handle, he says.

Despite the excessive rains in spring and early summer, Birdsall says he and other northwestern North Dakota agriculturalists are keeping this growing season in perspective.

“Never curse rain when you live in a desert,” he says.

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