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Published June 16, 2014, 09:17 AM

Area farmers fight to finish planting under tough conditions

For the second straight year, many Upper Midwest farmers are battling uncooperative weather to plant their crops. And for the second straight year, some farmers are running out of time.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

For the second straight year, many Upper Midwest farmers are battling uncooperative weather to plant their crops.

And for the second straight year, some farmers are running out of time.

“It’s been a little cold and wet. And the rain keeps coming,” says Rutendo Nyamusamba, Rapid City-based agronomy-crop field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.

Generalizing about the sprawling Upper Midwest, which includes everything from the corn and soybean fields of southeast Minnesota to the wheat fields of northern Montana, is risky. But as of mid-June, three things are clear.

• Farmers generally are close to wrapping up. Most deadlines to receive full federal crop insurance coverage have passed, and it’s dangerously late to plant many crops. But a few crops such as sunflowers, which can go into the ground relatively late, will continue to be planted until late June or early July.

• Many fields in the region won’t get planted. Producers who farm them will receive prevented-planting payments.

• Because many fields were planted late this spring, crops overall will be more susceptible than usual to unfavorable weather during the rest of the growing season. Late-planted crops in 2013 were boosted tremendously by favorable summer and fall weather; this year’s crops will need help, too.

Late-planted crops generally don’t yield as well as crops planted at the optimal times. Crops such as wheat, a cool-season grass, can be hurt when they’re planted late and exposed to too much mid-summer heat. Crops such as corn and soybeans can be hurt if they’re planted late and exposed to early fall frost.

For example, wheat is ideally planted by mid-April in southern North Dakota. Each day wheat is not planted after mid-April results in a yield loss of 1.5 percent on average. So, a field planted to wheat 10 days after mid-April could yield 15 percent less than normal, according to North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Crop prices have plunged in the past year, so a 15 percent reduction in yields could leave a farmer with no profit or even a loss on the field, officials say.

Continuing to plant later than usual generally paid off for area farmers last year, thanks to exceptionally cooperative summer and fall weather.

A cool stretch in late July and early August came at a critical time in the development of many wheat and canola fields, boosting yields.

“That cool weather really was important,” says Mike Johnston, a Cando, N.D., farmer.

A warm, frost-free September in 2013 was a boon for late-planted corn and soybean fields, giving both crops more time to develop.

But there’s one encouraging development across the region this year. Late-planted crops, at least the ones that have avoided heavy rains, generally are thriving with the arrival of warmer temperatures.

“The crop is looking good. We’ve got a full moisture profile, and it (the new crop) is just springing out of the ground,” says Justin Downs, a Billings, Mont., farmer.

Other farmers and ag officials across the region say the same thing.

“What’s planted really looks good. It’s just exploding out of the ground,” says Duaine Marxen, NDSU Extension eagent in southwest North Dakota’s Hettinger County.

Nobody’s taking a good crop for granted, of course.

Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission, says he’s “optimistically cautious. There are some good-looking fields. But it’s still a lot of time until harvest.”

That’s particularly true this year, given late planting. Only 5 percent of South Dakota was headed out by early June, compared with an average of 13 percent.

2013 comparisons

Comparisons between late planting in 2013 and this year are inevitable. But there are important differences.

For one, late planting was most common in northern North Dakota last year. The problem is more widespread this year.

That’s because heavy spring rains across the region last year fell on fields short on moisture after the drought of 2012. Though the 2013 spring rains stopped planting temporarily, many farmers were able to get back into their fields after the moisture sank in.

This year, most of the region already had considerable subsoil moisture. So new precipitation is more likely to remain on top of fields and prevent them from being worked.

“Last spring, we were just so dry when the rains came. This year, we’re not,” Marxen says.

Last year, North Dakota had 2.8 million prevented-planting acres, most of them in the northern part of the state. Minnesota had 902,000 prevented-planting acres, with 187,000 in North Dakota and 151,000 in Montana.

Unlike last year, “We’re hearing anecdotal reports (of planting problems) across the state,” says Aaron Krauter, executive director of the North Dakota office of the Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

His office should have an estimate of the number of prevented-planting acres statewide by the end of June, he says.

It’s too early to predict how many acres across the region won’t get planted. The number is changing daily.

Despite the slow start and frequent rain delays after that, some farmers made rapid planting progress in late May and into the middle of June.

“It was pretty wild out here for a while,” Downs says. “Everything was piled up in (the start of) planting. And then guys were able to get going.”

This planting season also differs from the 2013 planting season because of crop prices, which generally are much lower now than a year ago. Last year, attractive prices encouraged farmers to plant longer and later than they normally would. That incentive is gone this year.

“It’s riskier now (to plant late),” says Kim Swenson, a Lakota, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

The NDSU Extension service has an online calculator, at www.ag.ndsu.edu/farmman agement/prevented-planting, that helps farmers decide whether to continue planting or take prevented-planting payments.

Farmers also should weigh options to prevented planting, including planting crops that could be harvested and sold as hay, according to NDSU.

Corn and soybeans

The late, wet spring has forced corn and soybean producers, in particular, to make difficult decisions. Wheat, corn and soybeans are the region’s three major crops. Typically, wheat is planted first, followed by corn and finally soybeans.

It’s too late to safely plant corn, even the fastest-maturing varieties, in most of the region, says Jeff Coulter, University of Minnesota Extension corn specialist.

Some farmers who want feed for animals still can plant corn, figuring they’ll use it for silage if it can’t be used for grain, he says.

Many farmers, including ones in northwest Minnesota, will plant soybeans on fields initially slated for corn, Coulter says.

The same is true with some North Dakota fields on which farmers had planned to plant corn, Swenson says.

Weeds are next problem

Rich Zollinger recites their names like a policeman reading the Most Wanted List.

“Pigweed, lambsquarters,

Canada thistle, buckwheat, kochia, smartweed, waterhemp, ragweed — they’re all going to be bad,” says Zollinger, weed specialist with the NDSU Extension Service.

For several years, he and other experts have stressed the importance of applying pre-emergent chemicals to fields. This year’s compressed planting season, however, prevented many producers from doing so.

As a result, “We won’t have just two or three weeds causing problems. Everything will be bad,” he says.

In addition to dealing with the wide variety of weeds, producers need to remain diligent in identifying small patches of chemical-resistant weeds before those patches expand, he says.

Farmers should remember that extension service websites offer a great deal of information on weeds and other crop issues, says Lizabeth Stahl, Worthington-based University of Minnesota Extension crops educator.

Lurking in the background

Though many regional farmers have battled wet conditions this spring, the danger of too little moisture later in the growing season remains.

As Downs puts it, “They say drought is never more than two weeks away.”

Already, parts of southwest Minnesota and southeast South Dakota are listed as “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought” by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We wish some of those areas that had too much rain this spring could have sent us some,” Stahl says.

Recent rains have helped, however, and crops in her area look good for now.

“But we’ll need timely rains” during the rest of the growing season, she says.

NASS numbers

Some area farmers made good planting progress the week of June 9. But the best numbers available, when this issue of Agweek was being finalized, come from the National Agricultural Statistics Service report issued June 9. The report doesn’t include planting rates for all crops in every state.

• Soybeans — 84 percent of North Dakota’s soybeans were planted, compared with 66 percent a year ago. Ninety-three percent of South Dakota soybeans were planted, compared with 79 percent a year ago. Eighty-six percent of Minnesota soybeans were planted, up from 70 percent a year ago.

• Sunflowers — Fifty-nine percent of North Dakota sunflowers were planted, up from 31 percent a year ago. Fifty-one percent of South Dakota sunflowers were planted, up from 18 percent a year ago.

Spring wheat — North Dakota farmers had planted 93 percent of • their wheat, up from 75 percent a year ago. In Minnesota, 94 percent of wheat was planted, down from 95 percent a year ago. Montana farmers had planted 97 percent of spring wheat, up from 94 percent a year ago.

• Corn — North Dakota farmers had planted 92 percent of their corn, up from 88 percent a year ago. In Minnesota, 96 percent of corn was planted, up from 90 percent a year ago. In Montana, 95 percent of corn was planted, up from 90 percent a year ago.

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