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Late planting? There's anxiety, concern

REYNOLDS, N.D. — It's a quiet mid-March morning at Valley United Co-op in the Red River Valley town of Reynolds where corn, wheat and soybeans are all grown. Though employees are plugging away diligently at their jobs, there's no special urgency or rush.

But once spring planting begins, that will change. Valley United employees will be working feverishly to support co-op patrons in getting seed, fertilizer and chemical into fields.

The sooner that happens, the better, said Paul Coppin, Valley United's CEO.

"It's not going to be an early start to planting this year. We know that. But we don't know yet if it will be an average start or a late start," he said. "And there's concern that we might be late."

Paul CoppinThat concern is common across much of the Upper Midwest, with many farmers and others involved in production agriculture worrying that uncooperative weather will prevent them from getting a timely start this planting season.

Coppin and others in ag don't discount those concerns. But they also give this advice:

Take a deep breath. Focus on what you can control, not what you can't. And remind yourself that April and May weather will have a greater impact on planting then what happened this winter.

"Just because there's been significant snowfall in some areas doesn't necessarily mean we'll have a late start to planting," Daryl Ritchison, interim director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.

Accumulated snow can melt quickly in relatively warm April weather, though overland flooding could be a problem, he said

Why there's concern

But there's no disputing that it's been a long, tough winter for many Upper Midwest farmers, especially ones hit with heavy snows in October 2018. To make matters worse, March blizzards have extended winter — and heightened concern about a potentially late start to planting this spring.

Winter's early arrival last year aggravates the concern. It prevented or hindered many farmers from applying fertilizer and doing post-harvest tillage in October 2018 — and jobs that didn't get done then will need to be completed this spring.

"After what happened last fall, there's more left to do," Coppin said.

Poor crop prices factor into the anxiety, too. Many farmers say that, at current prices, they'll need above-average yields to turn a profit. Late-planted crops generally yield less than ones planted early, so an early start would be especially welcome this spring, ag officials say.

"If we had our choice, we'd sure rather get started early," Coppin said.

A late start to planting could affect farmers in another way, too. Wheat, corn and soybeans are the region's three major crops, with soybeans usually the last of the three to be planted.

A delayed planting season could pressure some farmers to plant more soybeans and less wheat and corn, even though the latter two might be more attractive financially, Coppin said.

Contrast to 2018

But early starts don't guarantee good yields, nor late starts poor yields. 2018 is a perfect example; despite a late planting start — the result of uncooperative April and early May weather — many area farmers ended up enjoying strong yields.

How slow was the 2018 planting start? Virtually no corn was planted in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota by April 28, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. In contrast, the April 28 five-year average for 2012-2017 was: Minnesota, 26 percent of corn planted; South Dakota, 13 percent of corn planted; North Dakota, 9 percent of corn planted.

Last year's slow planting start can be too easily forgotten or overlooked, Ritchison said

"Memories can be very short sometimes," he said.

It also might be said that farmers, like people in general, often have selective memories. The Upper Midwest enjoyed several early planting starts in 2012-17, especially in 2012, when some northwest Minnesota farmers were planting wheat in late March. Focusing too much on those unusually early planting starts can skew perspectives, ag officials say.

Stay flexible

Jeff Mertz, a Hurdsfield, N.D., farmer and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, said many area farmers are concerned about planting this spring.

But ag producers do their best to stay positive and flexible, he said.

"It's important to stay busy, to adjust to whatever the weather brings," he said.

For example, many farmers are working on their equipment to make sure it's fully ready to go when planting begins, he said.

Farmers and others in ag say that, despite the concerns, there's cause to be optimistic. The list includes:

• Mid-March weather forecasts are favorable, calling for both warmer temperatures and dry conditions in late March and early April.

• Modern equipment allows farmers to complete planting relatively quickly when the weather cooperates.

Though 2019 won't bring an early start to planting, it won't necessarily bring a late start, either, Coppin said.

"(Getting started in) mid-April looks like a pipedream. But if we're going pretty good in the last week of April, farmers will be feeling a lot better," he said.

For now, though, "We're all anxious to hear the tractor start and smell the dirt," Coppin said.

And no matter what else happens, "We know we'll get it (planting) done," he said.

USDA's take on planting dates

In Upper Midwest agriculture, "average" and "normal" can be misleading, especially when the weather is involved. For instance, a very wet summer followed by a very dry summer produces a two-year precipitation "average" that doesn't accurately reflect what happened either summer.

That said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has compiled a state-by-state range of "typical" planting dates for spring wheat, soybeans and corn, the region's three major crops. Keep in mind that the dates can vary substantially within a state

Upper Midwest farmers generally begin planting with spring wheat, then switch to corn and finally to soybeans. By USDA's reckoning, the bulk of the three crops are planted, in most years, in the second half of April and May — something that still could occur in 2019, provided the weather cooperates in the next few weeks.

Here's USDA's assessment of the earliest the three crops are planted, their most active planting period, and the latest they're planted:

Spring wheat

South Dakota — Earliest, March 31; most active period, April 8-May 12; latest, May 21.

Montana — Earliest, April 6; most active period, April 14-May 12; latest, May 18.

Minnesota — Earliest, April 14; most active period, April 23-May 23; latest, June 1.

North Dakota — Earliest, April 16; most active period, April 24-May 25; latest, June 3.

Corn

Minnesota — Earliest, April 22; most active period, April 26-May 19; latest, May 29.

North Dakota — Earliest, April 26; most active period, May 2-May 28, latest, June 4.

South Dakota — Earliest, April 26; most active period, May 2-May 27; latest, June 10.

Soybeans

Minnesota— Earliest, May 2; most active period, May 8-June 2; latest, June 13.

North Dakota — Earliest, May 7; most active period, May 14-June 3; latest, June 11.

South Dakota — Earliest, May 8; most active period, May 15-June 11; latest, June 21.

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