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Published July 15, 2013, 09:35 AM

Playing catch-up

A wet spring has slowed crop development in northeast North Dakota

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Jon Woods saw a field of potatoes being planted on July 2, many weeks later than normal.

“That’s the kind of year it’s been. There was so much rain — and I mean heavy rains — that planting was really a challenge,” says Woods, sales agronomist with CHS Ag Services in St. Thomas, N.D., in the northeast part of the state.

Some parts of northeast North Dakota received as much as 12 inches of rain in late May and June. The rains followed a cold spring that prevented heavy snow cover from melting until weeks later than normal.

A recent Agweek trip through Pembina and Walsh counties in northeast North Dakota found many signs of the late, wet spring. Some fields, though now dry on top, went unplanted. Many fields were planted so late that the crops on them, through now green and growing nicely, are far less advanced than they should be.

Pembina and Walsh Counties are in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Sugar beets and potatoes are major crops in the two counties, as are corn, soybeans and dry edible beans. Wheat continues to be grown by many producers, although it’s raised primarily for its rotational benefits and isn’t regarded as a big money-maker.

On the day that Agweek visited, temperatures climbed into the high 80s under a partly cloudy sky. That continued a string of warm weather, which farmers and others in the area say boosted development of late-planted row crops. Even so, many fields still had a lot of catching up to do.

A fair amount of fieldwork was under way: tilling unplanted fields on which weeds grew; cultivating potatoes; and applying chemicals, primarily to wheat.

Most of the fieldwork was accompanied by clouds of dust — a good sign that, despite the wet spring, growing crops would soon need more rain.

Following is a summary of what Agweek found.

St. Thomas, N.D. — Jon Woods shakes his head when asked what this spring was like in his area.

“It would rain. Not just a half inch or something like that; it would be 2 or 3 inches. And then a few days later, it would rain again,” he says.

Rainfall varied greatly in Woods’ trade area. He estimates that 10 to 15 percent of fields went unplanted in some areas, with the rate even higher in areas hit particularly hard by rain.

“Guys tried hard to plant. They really did. But it was just so wet,” he says.

There was particular interest in planting red potatoes, the price of which has risen sharply from a year ago. That caused some spud producers — such as the one Woods saw planting on July 2 — to keep going longer than they normally would.

Farmers and others involved in agriculture in the area remain optimistic, Woods says.

Warm temperatures in late June and early July boosted crop growth. If the weather continues to cooperate, a decent crop is still possible, although it won’t be a bumper, he says.

Woods says he won’t soon forget difficult planting conditions this spring.

A spring as wet as this one “is bad for farmers, bad for us and bad for everybody,” he says.

Crystal, N.D. — Evan Collette is preparing to spot-spray Canadian thistle in a potato field southeast of Crystal.

The day is warm, though not stiflingly so, and the row crops are responding favorably.

“Things look a lot better than they did (before it warmed up)” says Collette, 21, an ag science major at the University of Minnesota-Crookston who has a year of college left.

Collette farms with his family near Oakwood, N.D., a small town east of Grafton, N.D. The Collettes raise potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans and wheat.

There’s no ideal July weather for farmers who raise that combination of crops. Warmer weather helps the row crops, but isn’t best for wheat, a cool-season grass.

Still, Collette and others say, the warm weather is needed.

What’s also needed, he says, is more precipitation to give crops a mid-July boost.

“An inch of rain would be really good,” he says.

Grafton, N.D. — Like the rest of northeast North Dakota, Grafton suffered from a late, cold spring.

The city’s average temperature from March 15 to May 15 was 31 degrees, 12 degrees below normal, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.

Wet weather worsened the already slow start to planting. Grafton received 6.7 inches of rain from April 15 to June 1, nearly twice as much as usual for the period, NDAWN says.

Farmers worked hard to plant as much of their crops as possible, according to Tom Gullickson, who works in ag and turf sales for True North Equipment in Grafton.

Warm weather in late June and early July was a big help, accelerating the growth of late-planted fields, he says.

Now, the immediate concern is moisture, he says.

“It may sound kind of strange after our wet spring. But the crops would benefit from another shot of rain,” he says.

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