Crop consultant Mark Huso has 45 farmer clients in north central and northeastern North Dakota. As of May 11, only four had started planting.

“Patience is wearing thin in the area,” he says.

Mark’s brother, Scott Huso, is one of the unlucky 41. He plans to plant “somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 acres” this year. And while that spread draws laughs, it’s no joke.

Though rapid planting progress is being made in much of the Upper Midwest, the North Dakota planting pace is lagging badly, according to the weekly crop progress report released May 11 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report reflected conditions on May 10.

Just 27% of North Dakota spring wheat was planted on May 10, less than half the five-year average of 56% for that date. Other crops are similarly delayed.

The planting problems began in the fall of 2019, when wet conditions delayed harvest or made it impossible. Scott Huso, like many farmers, waited until March to combine corn, hustling to get it off during a brief period when the snow was low enough to get to the cobs but the ground was still frozen.

While some other crops also went unharvested in 2019, corn was the big problem. The corn itself was too wet in the field in the fall, as were field conditions in many places. North Dakota farmers had combined less than half of their corn by the end of 2019; by May 10, 2020, NASS’s crop progress report said 7% of 2019 corn in the state still remained unharvested.

The harvest problems meant many farmers couldn’t complete fall work before winter, including tillage passes or planting cover crops. Even with ideal conditions in the spring, they already were going to start out behind.

And there haven’t been ideal conditions in much of North Dakota.

May marked the eighth straight month that snow fell in north-central North Dakota's Nelson County, putting an already tardy planting season even further behind.

"Planting is off to a very slow start," said Katelyn Hain, the former Nelson County Extension agent who now serves Grand Forks County, just east of Nelson.

The most recent Nelson County May snowfall — which continues the monthly streak of snow that began there with heavy snows in early October 2019 — totaled 5 to 6 inches in places. Despite melting rapidly, the snow again delayed planting, including spring wheat, normally the first of the area's major crops (corn and soybeans are the others) to go into the ground.

"It's getting late to plant wheat," Hain said, adding that some fields once slated for wheat this growing season may end up in the federal prevented planting program.

Warm, dry weather is needed quickly, she said.

Residue complication

Farmer Scott Bylin says a canola stubble field remains too wet to plant on March 11, 2020, despite drain tile that helps pull water away from the surface. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Farmer Scott Bylin says a canola stubble field remains too wet to plant on March 11, 2020, despite drain tile that helps pull water away from the surface. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Scott Bylin is one of Mark Huso’s four clients that have gotten some planting done. He has managed to get some barley planted on lighter soil fields on his farm in western Walsh County in northeastern North Dakota. Two fields were completely done by May 11, while he had to leave some places unplanted on a third because it was too wet.

Bylin explained that he tries to practice “reduced” tillage, making as few passes over the field as possible to get the ground in shape. That, he said, saves time, fuel and labor, along with offering soil health benefits. While no-till farming is popular in many places in the region, Bylin says dealing with the heavy soils and residue in his area usually requires some amount of tillage. He had planned to do some light tillage with a chisel plow in the fall, but the window never opened to get it done.

“We’ve never had this much ground not worked before,” he said.

Mark Huso, a crop consultant in northeastern North Dakota, stands in a corn stubble field in Griggs County, N.D., with his brother and client Scott Huso. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Mark Huso, a crop consultant in northeastern North Dakota, stands in a corn stubble field in Griggs County, N.D., with his brother and client Scott Huso. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
The Husos are both proponents of no-till or minimum-till systems. Scott Huso turns over a spade-full of soil in his fields to check the condition. He points out the earthworms and the paths they’ve made in the ground. Those pathways also hold water, which makes no-till particularly beneficial in dry years. The soil on his fields, whether the field was in pinto beans or corn or wheat, is wet but not slimy or mucky. And while it’s still too wet to be planted, Mark Huso says it’ll be more efficient to plant with one pass rather than taking multiple trips through the field tilling beforehand.

Even farmers who haven’t gotten into no-till farming might be forced into it by the calendar, he explains. Especially ground that was in soybeans or edible beans last year may be able to be planted without tilling if push comes to shove.

“Just try it in a field. Try one less cultivator pass, one less chisel pass,” he says.

But some problems are going to need to be dealt with in a different manner. For instance, in some places, the most efficient way to deal with residue is going to be to burn it, Mark Huso says. That will get rid of the residue and allow the soil to dry off and warm up faster.

Burning residue from last year's corn crop may be the most efficient manner of getting back in the field this year, crop consultant Mark Huso says. That means losing out on the organic matter from the old plant, but Huso says that's an acceptable trade off for getting this year's crop planted on time. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Burning residue from last year's corn crop may be the most efficient manner of getting back in the field this year, crop consultant Mark Huso says. That means losing out on the organic matter from the old plant, but Huso says that's an acceptable trade off for getting this year's crop planted on time. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
“We understand the value the corn plant brings to the soil and the organic matter tied in the residue, but our focus right now is to get the field planted,” he says. “If we lose one year of organic matter from the corn crop, we’re OK with that sacrifice”

Embracing flexibility

Farmers often can plant directly into residue from pinto beans, says crop consultant Mark Huso. Using no-till practices in 2020 will save time as North Dakota farmers struggle to get into wet fields. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Farmers often can plant directly into residue from pinto beans, says crop consultant Mark Huso. Using no-till practices in 2020 will save time as North Dakota farmers struggle to get into wet fields. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
Bylin is standing on a field of canola stubble that happens to be the only field where he’s had drain tile installed. It’s still too wet to plant, even with the tile, but without the tile, planting it this year probably wouldn’t be possible.

“You’d be sunk to your ankles now if there wasn’t drain tile,” he says.

The drain tile was a good investment, Bylin says, and one that should pay for itself seven or eight years after it was put in. But it’s only on one field, and the drain tile doesn’t take care of all his problems.

For one, it’s not just field conditions that are muddying things up this year. The markets aren’t helping with crop selection. Bylin says he’s already turned away from corn on some fields. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to get corn in soon enough to produce a decent crop in some places, and even if he does, the sinking corn market makes putting the seed in the ground nerve-wracking.

That’s part of the reason he has such a diverse crop rotation, including corn, soybeans, canola, black and pinto beans, canola and barley. Each crop provides different soil health benefits, and he feels better not putting all his “eggs in one basket.” If market or ground conditions dictate, he’s fine with changing fields on the fly.

A fall-planted cover crop, like this rye coming up in a Steele County, N.D., wheat field, can help soak up excess moisture. Poor 2019 field conditions kept many farmers from planting cover crops or doing fall tillage work. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
A fall-planted cover crop, like this rye coming up in a Steele County, N.D., wheat field, can help soak up excess moisture. Poor 2019 field conditions kept many farmers from planting cover crops or doing fall tillage work. (Trevor Peterson / Agweek)
What he plans on planting already has changed and very well could change again. Along with all the other problems in the area, soil temperatures are behind. Bylin says they had been in the low to mid-40s but actually went down further in the days leading up to a 5-inch snowfall on May 9.

“I haven’t stuck a probe in today, but I don’t really want to know,” he says.

While the calendar isn’t anyone’s friend in the area, Mark Huso says all hope is not lost.

“The good thing is is farmers can work quickly, effectively. The equipment is big, it’s fast. We can get a lot done in a short amount of time compared to previous years,” he says. “But there’s no question we are a lot farther behind than we’d like.”