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Corey Bader, of Lehr, N.D., was seeding soybeans on May 10, 2017 in Logan County. (Katie Pinke/Agweek)

Good spring for planting

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Coty Wangen takes a few moments to wolf down his noon meal of hamburger/macaroni hotdish, aka "farmer" hotdish, "funeral" hotdish or "church" hotdish. Employees of CHS Ag Services in Crookston, Minn., of which he is location manager, often bring food from home on particularly busy days. This early May day — warm, sunny and not terribly windy — is nearly perfect for planting, so Wangen and his fellow CHS employees are hard at work helping customers.

His hasty meal finished, Wangen spares a little more time to talk about planting in Crookston, a farm town in northwest Minnesota. Many crops, most notably corn, soybeans, wheat, dry edible beans and sugar beets, are grown in the Crookston area.

Though some farmers in the northern part of his trade area are still struggling with excess moisture from the 2016 crop season, the overall planting pace is favorable, Wangen says.

"It's going pretty well for most of the guys," he says. "It's been a good spring so far."

That's also a fair assessment of planting progress across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, farmers and others say.

Though generalizing about fields and crops across the sprawling Upper Midwest is risky — some areas are almost always wetter or drier than producers would prefer — the 2017 crop overall is off to a good start.

"Planting has gone very well in our area, though probably we're a little ahead of some others," says Mark Formo, a Litchville, N.D., farmer and immediate past president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. Litchville is in the east-central part of the state.

In central South Dakota, "It's been a pretty good planting season," says Ruth Beck, Pierre-based agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension. "We're on track. We're doing fine."

Farmers in her area still have some soybeans to plant, as well as sunflowers, but there's still plenty of time to get those crops in the ground, she says, noting that sunflowers often are planted in early June in her area.

Planting in parts of Montana was delayed somewhat by a stretch of cool, wet weather, says Tom Butcher, a Lewistown, Mont., farmer and president of his state Grain Growers Association. Lewiston is in central Montana.

But the moisture was welcome and more than offsets the planting delays to which it contributed, he says.

As of May 7, 46 percent of Montana spring wheat was planted, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That compares with 75 percent a year ago and the five-year average of 62 percent.

Key stretch ahead

Favorable weather in the third and fourth weeks of May would maintain and even accelerate planting across the region. Though planting begins in April and ends in June — or even in early July, when the weather fails to cooperate — the second half of May is when most area farmers traditionally get much of their crop, especially corn and soybeans, into the ground.

Here's a look at what the U.S. Department of Agriculture says are long-term planting patterns for soybeans, corn for grain and spring wheat, the region's three major crops.

Soybeans

Minnesota — "Most active" planting from May 8 to June 2, with June 13 the normal wrap-up

North Dakota — Most active from May 14 to June 3. June 11 is the normal wrap-up.

South Dakota — Most active from May 15 to June 11, with June 21 the usual final date

Corn for grain

Minnesota — Most active from April 26 to May 19, with May 29 the normal wrap-up.

Montana — Most active from May 4 to May 28, with June 4 the normal wrap-up.

North Dakota — Most active from May 2 to May 28. June 4 is the normal wrap-up.

South Dakota — Most active from May 2 to May 27. June is the usual final date.

Spring wheat

Minnesota — Most active from April 23 to May 23, with June 1 the normal wrap-up.

Montana — April 14 to May 12. May 18 is the usual final date.

North Dakota — Most active from April 24 to May 25, with June 3 the normal wrap-up.

South Dakota — Most active from April 8 to May 12. May 21 is usually the final date.

Averages can be misleading

Spring wheat is usually the first of the three major crops to be planted, followed by corn and then soybeans. This year's planting pace for all three crops generally trails their five-year averages. But those averages are skewed by several years of extremely early planting; that can leave the mistaken impression that farmers are behind where they should be this spring.

One example: North Dakota farmers had planted 4 percent of soybeans by May 7 of this year, compared with the five-year average of 12 percent. The five-year average includes unusually early planting in both 2016 and 2012, however.

But good planting progress in early May helped many area farmers gain ground. For example, North Dakota farmers had planted 45 percent of their wheat by May 8, compared with 18 percent on May 1.

Put differently, farmers in the state planted roughly a quarter of their wheat crop (27 percent) in one week.

"It was really good to see how much progress was made," says Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

Farmers and area agriculturalists say planting progress for all three crops will be substantially higher when new statistics are released May 15, if the weather cooperates. As Wangen notes, modern farm equipment allows farmers to plant rapidly, weather permitting.

Forecasts called for generally favorable planting conditions, though the weekend of May 12-14 could bring rain — which, in a few areas will be welcome.

Southwestern North Dakota, part of Montana and a bit of west-central South Dakota are abnormally dry, the least severe of five drought categories, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USDA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Still, dry conditions are less common than they were in the spring of 2016. A year ago, big parts of southern and northwest Montana were abnormally dry or in moderate drought, the second-least severe of the five drought categories, while most of western North Dakota, part of central North Dakota and southeast North Dakota and northeast South Dakota were all abnormally dry.

Timely planting, timely rains

Crops that are planted early, or at least not later than usual, usually produce better yields. Earlier planting shields crops from the worst of late-summer heat and reduces the odds of frost damage in the fall.

Many Upper Midwest farmers got into their fields early in 2016, Formo noted, pointing to the excellent overall yields last fall.

Timely rains during the growing season will be necessary, too, of course.

"It seems like we always can use more rain here in central South Dakota. So we'll need them (timely rains) again this year," Beck says.

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