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Published March 26, 2012, 08:00 AM

Planting earlier than usual this spring

It’s not unusual for William Ferguson to start planting his spring wheat in March. The Witten, S.D., farmer, who began planting in mid-March this year, is in a section of south-central South Dakota where early planting is fairly common.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

It’s not unusual for William Ferguson to start planting his spring wheat in March. The Witten, S.D., farmer, who began planting in mid-March this year, is in a section of south-central South Dakota where early planting is fairly common.

“We’ve had good results,” he says of early planting.

What’s unusual this spring is that a lot of farmers across the Upper Midwest will be planting early, provided the weather continues to cooperate.

As Lance Peterson, an Underwood, Minn., farmer, notes, the combination of little snow and exceptionally warm March temperatures allowed fields to dry and soil temperatures to rise much faster than normal.

If current conditions hold, many farmers in the region will begin planting at least a week earlier than normal, farmers and others involved in area agriculture say.

The number of area farmers planting wheat, in particular, could really pick up during the week of March 26.

Area farmers were calling Jochum Wiersma, an agronomist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service in Crookston, by the middle of March.

“They keep asking, ‘Can I go (start planting wheat)? Can I go?’” he says.

Wheat is the first of the region’s main crops to be planted. A cool-season grass, wheat typically fares best when it matures before the arrival of late-summer heat.

Most other crops won’t be planted this early, even if field and weather conditions would allow it, ag officials say.

Planting too soon would increase the risk of frost damage to young, emerging plants. It also would jeopardize potential payments from the federal crop insurance program.

Planting decisions are motivated, in part, by what federal crop insurance identifies as the “earliest planting date.” That’s “the earliest date an insured crop can be planted and qualify for a replanting payment,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency.

Farmers who plant too early won’t qualify for replanting payments if they need to replant a field because of bad weather.

The date varies by crop from state to state and even from county to county, depending on the risk associated with the crop in that state or county. For instance, the earliest planting date for wheat in southern Minnesota was March 21. The date changes to March 27 in central Minnesota and April 1 in northern Minnesota.

Whatever else this spring may bring, producers apparently won’t be confronted with a repeat of 2011, when soggy conditions made planting a muddy mess and prevented many fields from being planted.

“We all have last year on our minds,” says Leonard Schock, a Vida, Mont., farmer who expects to be in his fields earlier than usual.

Planting early isn’t free of risk — Schock points to 2008, when freezing temperatures devastated his early planted mustard — but it beats fighting wet fields to get in the crop, he says.

That better-than-last-year attitude translates into “a lot of optimism,” says Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

Not everything is rosy

But while an early start to planting is welcome, other aspects of the 2012 growing season aren’t quite so positive, at least compared with the situation a year ago.

The prices of some crops, particularly wheat, are lower than a year ago.

A year ago, spring wheat fetched an average $9.27 per bushel at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. The average price for spring wheat this spring at those elevators is $8.20 per bushel.

Other concerns this spring:

• Expenses generally have risen.

• Crop insurance coverage isn’t quite as favorable as it was in the spring of 2011.

• Seed shortages cloud the planting outlook. Planting problems a year ago limited the number of acres that produced seed for this year’s crop.

“There definitely are shortages,” says Justin Downs, whose family owns and operates Montana Seed and Feed in Billings.

Seed for pulse crops are in particularly short supply, he says.

Farmers in his area have been planting for weeks, although that’s not unusual, he notes.

Drought conditions

Most of North Dakota and South Dakota, as well as part of eastern Montana, are “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

Much of northeastern North Dakota and northern Minnesota are in “moderate drought,” one stage worse than abnormally dry, the U.S. Drought Monitor says.

Southern Minnesota is in “severe drought,” one stage worse than moderate drought, according to the Drought Monitor.

Nonetheless, farmers in southern Minnesota “are glad it’s been a mild winter and that they won’t have to go through what they did last spring,” says Bradley Carlson, University of Minnesota Extension Service crops educator in Mankato.

Fields in his area are the driest they’ve been since 1988, but producers aren’t particularly concerned, he says.

Farmers are optimistic that normal precipitation will return shortly and their soon-to-be-planted fields will have adequate moisture, Carlson says.

Dry conditions in the area aren’t ideal, says Maurus Heim, a semi-retired Edgeley, N.D., farmer who remembers a number of dry springs that led to early planting.

But being a little dry is preferable to being much too wet, which has been the case in recent years, he says.

“We’ll get the crop in faster and better,” he says.

Another advantage is that, as things stand now, farmers will have a bigger window of opportunity to plant this spring and won’t face nearly as much pressure.

Wheat to see benefit?

Planting wheat early can be particularly beneficial when moisture is short, says Wiersma, the University of Minnesota Extension Service specialist.

Wheat can make the most efficient use of limited moisture when the crop is planted early, he says.

Before planting wheat, farmers need to make sure the seed bed is prepared properly and that they’ve given due consideration to the risk of early frost, Wiersma says.

Attractive corn prices had been causing many area farmers to consider planting more of that crop and less wheat. An early start might encourage farmers to plant more wheat.

However, it’s too early to tell if that will happen, says Randy Englund, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission.

Crop insurance coverage

A ferocious price rally in early 2011 pushed up the price at which crops could be insured under yield and revenue protection.

These safety net prices are lower this year, although they remain at an attractive level, according to information from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Prices this year are set at $7.74 per bushel for spring wheat, $5.68 per bushel for corn and $12.55 per bushel for soybeans.

Those rates are down from $9.89 for spring wheat, $6.01 for corn and $13.49 for soybeans for the 2011 crop.

A year ago, crop insurance prices generally were high enough for producers to cover their expenses, ag officials say.

This year, crop insurance prices are lower and expenses are higher.

Even so, “We’re very close” to the point when crop insurance prices will cover expenses, says Gary Ihry, of Hope, N.D-based Ihry Insurance, which works with customers in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

Last year, given the wet spring, “The big worry was whether we’d be able to get it (the crop) into the ground,” says Mike Kozojed, an Ihry Insurance agent in Hillsboro, N.D.

This year, the biggest concern, at least for now, is that crop prices could drop sharply, which makes the revenue protection portion of crop insurance particularly important, he says.

Costs are rising

The cost of many inputs — or resources such as seed, chemical and fuel that go into producing crops — generally are higher than a year ago, according to the NDSU Extension Service.

A few examples from NDSU:

• Corn seed has increased about 6 percent, wheat seed about 16 percent and soybean seed about 17 percent from last year.

• The cost of urea, a widely used fertilizer, is up 23 percent from a year ago.

• Fuel will cost 5 to 10 percent more than last year.

Farmers say it’s frustrating that expenses rise when crop prices decline.

But frustration, at least for now, is overshadowed by optimism. Spring planting is at hand, and farmers hope for the best.

“Everything is fresh,” Ferguson, the Witten, S.D., farmer, says about this time of year.

“Farmers are the most optimistic people. And they’re never more optimistic than at planting time.”

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