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Published January 12, 2012, 08:23 PM

North Dakota farmers plant most winter wheat in quarter century

North Dakota farmers planted 700,000 acres of winter wheat in September, a 75 percent increase from a year earlier and the most ever, except for a brief spike in 1984 and 1985 when acres ballooned to 750,000. Still, the acres reported Thursday were a little less than crop watchers expected because of the late spring last year.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

North Dakota farmers planted 700,000 acres of winter wheat in September, a 75 percent increase from a year earlier and the most ever, except for a brief spike in 1984 and 1985 when acres ballooned to 750,000.

Still, the acres reported Thursday were a little less than crop watchers expected because of the late spring last year.

The question now is whether plunging temperatures this week, with little or no insulating snow on the ground statewide, could threaten the crop.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s report released Thursday, U.S. farmers planted 41.9 million acres of winter wheat that will be harvested this summer, up 3 percent from the 2011 crop and up 12 percent from the 2010 crop.

U.S. trends

Although hard red winter wheat is the main U.S. wheat crop, planted from Texas up to South Dakota, it’s a minor crop in North Dakota, where spring wheat takes up 6 million to 7 million acres a year and durum usually around 2 million acres.

This year, in fact, as durum acres dwindled to decades-long lows, there are nearly as many winter wheat acres planted as the 750,000 acres of durum that farmers harvested last fall.

Hard red winter acres, including North Dakota’s, were pegged at 30.1 million acres, soft red winter planted in Illinois and Ohio was at 8.37 million and white winter wheat acres totaled 3.49 million, according to USDA.

Wheat prices took a dive Thursday because the market didn’t expect the winter wheat crop to be as big or doing so well after drought conditions last summer in the South.

Late spring

In North Dakota, it’s more a curiosity item about how the unusual year would end up in the tough competition for acres as all crop prices remain at relatively high levels, with corn still driving most decisions.

“We had heard the winter wheat acres could be doubling from last year, so 700,000 maybe is a little less than we were expecting,” said Jim Peterson, marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

The increase largely is a reaction to a late, wet spring last year that overturned many farmers’ planting intentions, especially in the north-central and northwest areas of the state, where winter wheat is a bigger option.

“Growers were likely most influenced by the record number of prevent-plant acres they experienced this year, and several other factors that were favorable for planting winter wheat,” said Blake Vander Vorst, senior agronomist with Ducks Unlimited, which promotes the planting of winter cereals.

Unable to get spring wheat or durum planted in time because of the wet spring, farmers took the federal farm program’s payments in lieu of planting a 2011 crop, seeding the acres to winter wheat in mid-September.

Cold impact

Although winter wheat usually yields about 10 bushels per acre more than spring wheat in North Dakota, prices usually are lower because the protein content can’t match the prized high protein of spring wheat. And winter kill is always a threat.

In this strange winter, which is the warmest on record across most of the state, the lack of snow cover has not been a problem yet, farmers said.

However, some winter wheat in the southwest part of the state had started to “green-up” again under the balmy temperatures, Peterson said. Although the wheat can go back into a dormant stage, the plant, once “re-greened,” gets weaker, less able to withstand harsh winter weather later.

But just a day or two of temperatures at about zero won’t necessarily hurt winter wheat, which still is protected by warmer soil, Peterson said.

It would take a prolonged bout of below-zero average temperatures, without snow cover, to kill it, he said.

Other news

USDA also reported Thursday:

- U.S. sunflower production — 75 percent occurs in the Dakotas — last year totaled 2.04 billion pounds, down 25 percent from 2010, with average yields down 4 percent to 1,398 pounds per acre. Planted acres were down 21 percent to 1.54 million nationwide, the lowest figure since 1976.

For the first time since 1977, South Dakota produced more sun seeds than North Dakota, according to the National Sunflower Association, which is meeting in Fargo this week.

North Dakota produced 766 million pounds, down 39 percent from 2010. South Dakota was the only one of the nine major sunflower states to see yields increase, with production up slightly from 2010 to 777 million pounds.

- Grain corn production in North Dakota was down 13 percent from 2010 at 213 million bushels, with average yields pegged at 105 bushels an acre, down 27 bushels from 2010’s record. But corn, for only the third time, still outstripped spring wheat production in the state, which was only 168 million bushels, 28 percent below the 10-year average.

- Soybean production was down 19 percent at 113 million bushels, with average yields at 28.5 bushels per acre, down 5.5 bushels from 2010.

- Canola production was down 42 percent to 1.28 billion pounds. Flax production was down 72 percent at 2.43 million bushels, with average yields at 16.5 bushels an acre, down from 22 bushels in 2010.

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