DICKINSON, N.D. - Who would ever have thought farmers would have unharvested 2019 wheat crops left in southwest North Dakota fields, say nothing of the corn and sunflowers left standing.

And what will farmers do to plant their 2020 crops?

Kurt Froelich, NDSU Extension agent for Stark and Billings counties, which includes the areas around Dickinson and Medora, said the unharvested acres will affect 2020 production practices-and beyond.

The organizers of the annual Diversity, Direction and Dollars winter agronomy seminar in Dickinson on Jan. 14 tried to inform farmers on any research results that could help make choices, but there isn't much of it around, Froelich said.

"In North Dakota, we've never really had to deal with this issue," he said, adding, "In past years, we've dealt with corn not getting dried down, combined corn into the winter and into the spring. From a small grains standpoint? No."

Farmers in some areas that weren't able to harvest wheat may be looking at a 50- to 60-bushel per acre yield, standing in the field. That grain represents potential sales dollars, yes, but it also represents a cost.

Panelist Jon Wert, who farms in the Regent and New England, N.D., areas, said his farm left a couple thousand acres or more of spring wheat unharvested. "It's 70-bushel (per acre) wheat that's laying flat on the ground," he says. The family's canola all was harvested because it dries up more quickly after a rain.

"It might end up being a one-time tillage operation that we're just going to have to do," Wert says. "It's a hot topic in the coffee shops. What are we going to do? Some have talked about going out with a combine. I don't know."

The Wert farm has acquired a Degelman Pro-Till - a high-speed disc that cost $125,000. "We had to spend that to get rid of a crop," he said, chuckling. "That's backwards."

Wert is concerned whether it's going to dry out underneath enough to allow a tractor across with the new tillage tool.

Some growers are writing the unharvested spring wheat crop off as "abandoned."

The unharvested grain also represents "seed" that's lying on the ground. Wert is going to conduct germination tests on the grain and if it is viable, they can work it in, spray it with glyphosate and then seed it for 2020 production.

If it germinates in the spring, what are the issues of disease management from the mat of the residue? Some residue is still standing and some is laid over by snow cover.

"When is it going to dry up?" Froelich said.

No-till issues

Most farmers in southwest North Dakota are no-till farmers. The ground needs to dry before they'll move machines through the fields without making huge ruts, Froelich says. Farmers also must decide what kind of equipment they need to get through the residue, get the seed into the soil without getting plugged up.

"We don't have the answers, so-to-speak, yet," Froelich said. "But we have ideas."

Froelich says areas of unharvested corn are "scattered." He conducted an informal survey prior to Christmas and found some areas with 60% to 80% of their corn left in the field. Some growers were reporting 22% moisture to 30% moisture, for some of the corn. Wildlife depredation and field losses will increase.

Some growers were selecting lower-moisture varieties to harvest, but leaving the rest until spring. Others with dryers were trying to get what they could.

Some producers also have not harvested many acres of sunflowers. Some crops have more head molds, which can affect yield, than in past years.

"We're plugging away," Froelich said.. "Production agriculture is a very resilient group of people." Families have made it through the Dirty Thirties and the 1980s farm credit crisis. "We're still going to have people producing food for our consumers," he said.

Trial-and-error

Farmers in that part of the state are strong no-till practitioners and have to debate whether they want to put tillage back into the mix. They've built up soil health benefits with no-till. "Soil scientists tell us that one passage of tillage basically takes away those years we've done all of that work for us," he says.

Some farmers are talking about using "vertical" tillage. Others are talking about using burning residue off.

"We've got guys talking about, 'Maybe I'll go out in the spring ... get underneath it with some sort of windrow machine," Froelich says, adding, "'Take it off that way. Bale it up. Take the bales and go burn the bales.' Once somebody does 'it,' that thing is going to catch on."