Dennis Haugen remembers the spring of 1997. And compared to that, the spring of 2020 doesn't seem so bad.
"Things were a lot worse that spring than they are now," said Haugen, president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Assoiation and a Hannaford, N.D., farmer and agribusinessman.
But Haugen doesn't discount the challenges that area farmers face this spring. Many fields will be planted later than usual, especially after an early April snowstorm hit much of his area in eastern North Dakota. Already, the start of spring wheat planting will be delayed for most producers.
Late-planted crops generally yield less than ones planted in a timely fashion. Late planting typically provides less of the heat that many crops need to develop normally and also exposes them to greater risk of early frost. And spring wheat, normally the first of the region's three major crops (corn and soybeans are the others) to be planted, is a cool-season grass that fares best when it matures and is harvested before late-summer heat.
Though no two planting seasons are ever the same, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides these "usual" planting dates for spring wheat:
Minnesota: Start, April 14; most active, April 23-May 23; finish, June 1.
Montana: Start, April 6; most active, April 14-May 12; finish, May 18.
North Dakota: Start, April 16; most active, April 24-May 25; finish, June 3.
South Dakota: Start, March 31; most active, April 7-May 12; finish, May 21.
For now, at least, it appears likely that spring wheat planting won't get underway in earnest until the latter end of the most active range.
Soil temperatures in many fields remain too low to plant wheat. And early April snowstorms and rains, which dumped more moisture on many fields already soggy from excess moisture in the fall of 2019 and the winter of 2019-2020, further delays the start of planting in some areas, Haugen said.
Adding to planting delays is the large number of corn acres that couldn't be harvested last fall and thus are being combined this spring. But some of the unharvested cornfields are so wet that it may be many weeks until they can be combined, he said.
"The harvest of 2019 might not be over until July (of this year)," leading to some farmers collecting prevented planting payments on fields that can't be planted, he said
With so much uncertainty, area farmers will be unusually flexible in the crops they plant this spring, Haugen said.
"They'll be looking to plant crops that give them the least chance of losing money," he said.
Even so, area farmers generally realize weather conditions could be worse, as they were in the spring of 1997, he said.
The winter of 1996-1997 brought record-setting snowfall and eight blizzards, the last of which came in April 1997. That led to massive flooding, widespread livestock deaths and a late start to planting.
"So we've had it worse," Haugen said.
Though attention is focused primarily on spring wheat and other small grains for now, there's also concern about likely delays in planting corn and soybeans. Here are USDA's "usual" planting dates for corn and beans:
Iowa: Start, April 19; most active, April 25-May 18; finish, May 26.
Minnesota: Start, April 22; most active, April 26-May 19; finish, May 29.
Montana: Start, April 26; most active, May 4-May 28; finish, June 4.
North Dakota: Start, April 26; most active, May 2-May 28; finish, June 4.
South Dakota: Start, April 26; most active, May 2-May 27; finish, June 10.
Iowa: Start, May 2; most active, May 8-June 2; finish, June 16.
Minnesota: Start, May 2; most active, May 8-June 2; finish, June 16.
North Dakota: Start, May 7; most active, May 14-June 3; finish, June 11.
South Dakota: Start, May 8; most active, May 15-June 11; finish, June 21.