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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

Spring: Time for some play-by-play commentary

After a long winter, it's nice to start hearing some play-by-play chatter.

Of course I'm talking about the annual crop commentary, not baseball.

For the past several years, grain prices have slid and cash-strapped farmers have been able to power through with better yields. Most are not talking about grand slams, or home runs. In these economic times, singles and doubles would be nice.

Will above-trend yields continue to elevate farmers? I wonder as I travel the region, looking at field conditions. One factor is the planting date. People are talking about planting in May, which maybe feels like a later start than it is.

The eye-popping snow and devastating flooding this year in west-central and southwest Minnesota, eastern South Dakota, as well as Nebraska and Iowa, are adding to anxiety. Ice storms, power outages, road problems all have added to the stress, but warming things up will make a difference.

Nobody wants to see conditions from 2018 in Minnesota when storms rolled through and delayed planting. But then I remember reports that planting occurred two weeks after the storms.

Ultimately, the 2018 yields declined in areas, but much of that was from untimely warm, wet conditions in much of southern Minnesota. With all of these concerns, Minnesota still managed a 191 per acre yield in 2018, down from the 194 bushels per acre average in 2017 and the 193 bushels in 2016, but also on an upward trajectory.

North Dakota corn yields are on an impressive rise. The yield averaged 153 bushels per acre in 2018 was up from 2017, the average corn yield was 139 bushels an acre, compared to a whopping 158 in 2016. It's good to remember that the 2015 yield was a record — at 128 bushels per acre. North Dakota State University plots at Fingal, N.D., hit a record-high 309.3 bushel non-irrigated yield in 2019, due, in part, to 12 inches of rain late in the growing season.

There are some hopeful signs. Some farmers I've talked to think the frost is coming out of the ground faster than they expected. Some attribute this to the soil being drier in the fall. Some think it's primarily because of snow cover.

In North Dakota, conditions west of U.S. Highway 281 are drier and planting will probably start a week or two earlier than east of 281. If conditions were otherwise "normal," seedsmen talk about a 2 bushel per day yield loss after May 10.

Not so fast

It's natural to be anxious about schedules but soil scientists tell us that it's important not to get into the fields before they sufficiently dry out. It's nice to be able to plant some corn in April. (I hear some will probably be planted in the Carrington, N.D., area by the end of the month.) But the seedsmen tell me that they don't want their farmer customers switching from a 95-day corn hybrid prior to May 15.

Like a baseball game, no two springs are the same. In addition to getting seed in the ground, one fly in the ointment is how much fertilizer was applied in the fall and whether this will squeeze schedules this spring. Will some of it get done as an anhydrous side-dress?

And there are the dark questions. Farmers declared crop intentions March 15, which some worry could set the stage for prevent-plant claims. With economists projecting lackluster economic returns at $30 to $50 for growing — after applying inputs — are people eyeing the $400 per acre prevent-plant payments?

But this is spring.

Players play and farmers farm. And everyone is cheering for a big yield in 2019, which often is the key to financial viability. For anyone who isn't blessed with an early start to your planting, I wish you a long, late growing season and a strong finish. We need the yield so good farm producers can stay in the farming game.