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Published March 31, 2014, 02:35 PM

Soybeans the star of key USDA report

Nationwide, farmers are projected to plant 81.5 million acres of soybeans, about 5 million more than a year ago. North Dakota will account for 1 million acres of the increase, with Minnesota and South Dakota predicted to have substantial increases, too.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Farmers in the Upper Midwest will plant a lot more soybeans this spring, the U.S., Department of Agriculture predicts.

Nationwide, farmers are projected to plant 81.5 million acres of soybeans, about 5 million more than a year ago. North Dakota will account for 1 million acres of the increase, with Minnesota and South Dakota predicted to have substantial increases, too.

Projections for corn and wheat, the region’s two other main crops, are mixed in the widely watched prospective plantings report, released Monday by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA.

The report is the federal government’s best guess based on farmer surveys in early March. Actual planted acreage can vary, in some cases greatly.

Now, grain markets will digest the report, causing prices of some crops to rise or fall. That, in turn, will influence what farmers end up planting.

Farmers and others involved in area agriculture have said all winter that soybeans are likely to gain acres this spring. Soybean prices have held up relatively well, and the crop needs fewer expensive inputs than corn and wheat.

“With crop prices and the cost of inputs the way they are, soybeans are more attractive.” says David Iverson, an Astoria, S.D., soybean producer.

Farmers in his state will plant an estimated 4.8 million acres of soybeans, 200,000 more than a year ago, NASS says.

Minnesota farmers are projected to plant 7.4 million acres of soybeans, 700,000 more than a year ago.

North Dakota farmers will plant an estimated 5.65 million acres of soybeans, 1 million more than a year ago. If NASS is right, North Dakota will vault into fourth place in U.S. soybean acreage, surpassing Indiana, Missouri and Nebraska. Soybeans are increasingly popular in parts of northern and western North Dakota where the crop was rare even a few years ago.

“Soybeans just keep spreading a little farther north and west every year,” says Jason Mewes, a Colgate, N.D., farmer and president of the state Soybean Growers Association.

“I give a lot of credit to the seed companies. They keep on coming on with new varieties,” he says.

Corn down nationally

Corn, the star of Upper Midwest agriculture in 2013, isn’t shining quite so brightly this year after a steep decline in its price.

U.S. farmers will plant an estimated 91.7 million acres of corn this spring, down from 95.3 million a year ago.

Minnesota’s corn acreage is estimated at 8.6 million, unchanged from a year ago.

Joe Neaton, a Waterford, Minn., farmer, says he’s uncertain how corn acreage can remain the same, given the NASS prediction for a substantial increase in Minnesota soybean acres.

“I don’t know where the extra soybean acres will come from if they don’t come from corn,” he says.

It’s possible that some of the increase in projected corn acres may come from fields that were too wet to plant a year ago, he says.

North Dakota’s corn acreage is projected to fall from 3.85 million last year to 2.95 million this year.

“I’m a little surprised it’s that low,” says Kim Swenson, a Lakota, N.D., farmer and president of the state Corn Growers Association.

Members of his group’s board of directors, in internal and informal estimates, pegged acreage at 3 million to 3.2 million, he says.

Corn had been on a long upswing in the state, reflecting formerly attractive corn prices and improved varieties that allow it to be grown in northern and western North Dakota.

South Dakota’s corn acreage is pegged at 5.8 million, down from 6.2 million a year ago.

Wheat mixed

Many area farmers and ag officials have said they expect greater interest this spring in wheat, which has lost acres to corn and soybeans in recent years.

The prospective plantings report, however, offers a murky outlook for wheat.

In Minnesota, projected wheat acres this year are pegged at 1.24 million, up slightly from 1.23 million a year ago but still less than 1.39 million in 2012.

Mike Skaug, a Beltrami, Minn., farmer, says some fields that once would have been planted to wheat probably will go to corn this year. Corn is increasingly popular in northwest Minnesota, an area where wheat once dominated.

In North Dakota, wheat acreage is estimated at 7.8 million, up from 6.1 million last year but down slightly from 7.84 million in 2012.

NASS projects the state’s winter wheat crop at 800,000 acres, up from 220,000 acres a year ago. Most of the additional acres apparently are in the northern part of the state, where winter wheat was planted last fall on many fields too wet to plant in spring 2013.

“A lot of winter wheat went in last fall,” says Mark Miller, extension agent in Rolette County, in north-central North Dakota.

Montana farmers are projected to plant 5.65 million acres of wheat this spring, up from 5.45 million acres a year ago.

The state’s winter wheat acres are pegged at 2.5 million, up from 2 million in 2013.

Montana will have an estimated 2.6 million acres of winter wheat, down from 2.95 million a year ago.

Planting conditions were excellent in the fall of 2013, leading Montana farmers to plant more winter wheat, some of it on fields that otherwise would have been planted to spring wheat this year, says Ryan McCormick, a Kremlin, Mont., farmer.

South Dakota farmers will plant an estimated 2.3 million acres of wheat, down from 2.5 million a year ago.

Attractive prices for competing crop have worked against South Dakota wheat acres in recent years.

“Wheat probably will feel it again this year,” Iverson says.

Other crops

Farmers in the Upper Midwest grow a wide range of crops, with North Dakota leading the nation in production of several of them.

NASS has these projections for 2014 acreage in small-market crops:

•Barley — 3.16 million, down from 3.48 million a year ago.

•Canola — 1.7 million, up from 1.3 million a year ago.

•Sunflowers — 1.59 million, up slightly from 1.57 million a year ago.

•Flax —326,000, up from 181,000 a year ago.

•Edible beans — 1.68 million, up from 1.35 million a year ago.

•Lentils — 320,000, down from 362,000 a year ago.

•Dry peas — 921,000, up from 860,000 a year ago.

An article in the April 7 print issue of Agweek will take a closer look at the NASS projections for small-market crops.