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Published April 15, 2013, 09:16 AM

When will planting start

The start of planting usually varies substantially across the Upper Midwest. The erratic snow cover - deep in some places and almost non-existent in others - means some area farmers most likely will start much earlier than others.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

In a normal year, most area farmers are planting, or soon will be, in mid-April.

This isn’t a normal year.

Though many producers are in their fields, heavy and slow-to-melt snow cover in some parts of the Upper Midwest is delaying planting. Potentially heavy flooding in some areas, particularly the Red River Basin of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, further complicates the planting outlook.

Drought adds still another dimension to planting. Some farmers are debating whether to plant now in dry soil or hold off in hopes of receiving traditional spring rains.

“We’re incredibly dry here,” says Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D.

His drought-stricken area received virtually no snow this winter until a blizzard hit the week of April.

The new precipitation “helps some,” but the area is still far short of normal moisture, he says. “Until there’s a rain, there are some guys who are going to sit on it (unplanted fields),” he says.

Elsewhere in South Dakota, planting should proceed at a fairly normal pace, though the blizzard will set things back somewhat, says Dennis Todey, state climatologist.

Late-spring blizzards aren’t uncommon in the state, although the most recent one came a little later than usual, he says.

“There’s a tradeoff,” he says of the blizzard. The additional moisture will help some parts of the state, but delay planting in others.

In contrast, northwest North Dakota received heavy snow this winter and was still “wet and white” in early April, says John Woodbury, location manager in Ross, N.D., for Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative, which also has locations in Parshall, New Town, Palermo and Stanley.

In Montana, spring planting progress covers “the whole gamut,” says Jill Herold, a Billings, Mont.-based agronomist for Syngenta, which provides seed and crop protection products. She has talked with farmers around the state this spring.

“We have some areas that are pretty dry. There are some other areas that already are planted, (where) you have stuff coming up,” she says. “And there are areas in the state, in the northeast corner that are a little worried about having too much moisture, which probably will delay planting.”

In Minnesota, “There will be a lot of difference in when planting starts,” says Bob Zelenka, executive director of the state Grain and Feed Association. Heavy snowfall in west-central and northwest Minnesota will cause farmers there to start planting later than their peers elsewhere in the state.

Regionwide, there’s no cause for panic yet about late planting. Typically, planting doesn’t begin in earnest until mid or late April, reaching top gear in early May.

Still, there’s reason for concern, at least in some areas.

In the Devils Lake Basin, in north-central North Dakota, planting won’t begin, at best, until early or mid-May, says Bill Hodous, Ramsey County extension agent.

Heavy snow cover remains, and time is needed for snow to melt and fields to dry, he says. Substantial late-spring rain or snow could further delay the start of planting until late May, a month later than normal, he says.

A late May start would pressure farmers to plant as quickly as possible, he says.

“Farms today are bigger, so they have more acres to cover (in planting). But they have bigger equipment, so they can get over more acres,” he says.

In contrast to much of the rest of North Dakota, the southwest part of the state received virtually no snow this winter and is extremely dry.

“Any and all moisture would be welcome,” says Duaine Marxen, extension agent in southwest North Dakota’s Hettinger County.

Low soil temperatures kept many farmers from starting to plant early, but rising temperatures allowed planting in his area to begin on the weekend of April 6 and 7, Marxen says.

Planting plans, yields

One of the big questions in area agriculture is whether delayed planting will cause farmers to plant less corn.

High corn prices make the crop attractive. The late March annual planting intentions report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predicts that farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota will plant more corn this spring.

Planting corn later than normal, however, increases the risk that it will be hurt by fall frost. Corn’s rising popularity in northwest North Dakota may be slowed, but not stopped, if the spring remains wet, Woodbury says.

Hodous says farmers in the Devils Lake area definitely want to plant more corn. A late spring would cut into an acreage increase, but it’s unclear how many fields would be switched from corn to another crop, he says.

Typically, soybeans, which can be planted relatively late, pick up acres in an unusually late spring.

Hodous says crops such as canola and small grains, which are popular in the Devils Lake area, could pick up acres if spring comes late. Unless fields stay wet well into June, most crops can be planted safely, says Jochum Wiersma, small grain specialist at the University of Minnesota in Crookston.

“We can still plant. The concern is that yields, potentially, can be much lower,” he says.

For instance, yields of wheat in North Dakota are expected to drop by 1.5 percent per day when the crop is planted after May 15. Wheat planted, say 10 days after May 15, could yield 15 percent less, or 10 times 1.5 percent.

Whatever the planting conditions or planting date, proper seed treatment remains vital, says Herold, with Syngenta.

Comparisons with 2012

Spring came unusually early across most of the Upper Midwest last year. Last year, for instance, 45 percent of South Dakota oats had been planted by April 7, according to NASS.

Twelve percent of oats in the state were planted by April 7 this year. Typically, 11 percent of oats in South Dakota are planted by April 7.

This year, Minnesota farmers, on average, expect to begin full-scale field work on April 26.

That would be two weeks later than last year, but only five days later than normal. To put the difference between 2012 and 2013 in better perspective, consider this:

This year, many fields in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota still have at least some snow cover.

Last year, when spring came unusually early, some farmers in that area contacted Wiersma in late March to ask if it was safe to begin planting wheat.

“They kept asking, ‘Can we go? Can we go?’” he recalls. Planting won’t be as early or simple this year, he says.

“How easily we get spoiled,” Wiersma says.

Weather the big question

The second half of April is expected to bring above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures on the Northern Plains, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

The center doesn’t have much of a handle on what might happen with moisture in May and June. It predicts an equal chance of above-normal, normal and below-normal precipitation across the Northern Plains.

Below-normal temperatures are forecast in May and June for northern Montana and northern North Dakota. Above-normal temperatures are predicted in May and June for southern South Dakota and southern Minnesota.

There’s an equal chance of above-normal, normal and below-normal precipitation across the rest of the four-state area, the center predicts.

Drought continues in Minnesota, South Dakota, southern Montana and southern and northeast North Dakota, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

The rest of April is expected to be cooler than usual in North Dakota, the northern two-thirds of Minnesota, northeast South Dakota and northeast Montana, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Drought is expected to improve in Minnesota. “Some improvement” is expected in most of the drought-stricken areas of North Dakota and South Dakota. Drought is projected to persist or intensify in southwest South Dakota and southern Montana.

Much of central South Dakota is “exceptionally dry,” the worst of four drought categories identified by the Drought Monitor.

One measure of how dry central South Dakota is: the area is the heart of the state’s winter wheat production, and 75 percent of South Dakota winter wheat is in poor or very poor condition, according to NASS.

Some fields in the area “have cracks in the soil,” says Beck, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm manager. “If you have large cracks in the spring, it’s not a good deal. There’s a fairly large area of that.”

He points out that many farmers elsewhere on the Northern Plains are struggling with heavy snow cover, excess moisture and the possibility of a late spring. Those farmers “should be happy. It beats the alternative,” he says.