DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — How you assess cereal grain conditions in the Devils Lake area depends on whether you see the glass as half-full or half-empty. If it's the former, you'll focus on the many lush fields that promise good yields. If you see a half-empty glass, you'll focus on fields that couldn't be planted this spring, fields short on moisture this summer and fields hurt by drown-out after heavy July rains.

An accurate assessment, which Bill Hodous tried to make, takes both the positives and negatives into account.

A spring wheat field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
A spring wheat field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
"It's hard to evaluate. A lot of the fields look so good, but there's prevent plant and the drown-out. And some fields missed out on most of the rain," said Hodous, the veteran Ramsey County extension agent who has decades of experience in the Devils Lake area.

On a breezy late-July day, with mostly green crops swaying in the wind, Agweek met with Hodous on the Agweek Cereal Crops tour. It included stops at fields of spring wheat, barley, durum and oats.

Devils Lake is in north-central North Dakota. The town of 7,300, the biggest in its immediate area, shares the name with the large lake that in recent years has been associated with severe flooding. Conditions were improving in recent years, but heavy rains this July reaggravated flooding for some producers.

Farmers in the Devils Lake area grow many crops, with spring wheat a staple in most farmers' rotations. Barley is fairly common, too, though less so than it once was, with spring wheat, corn and canola picking up most of the former barley acres.

A durum field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
A durum field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
Durum once was a mainstay in the area, too — Devils Lake was part of the historic Durum Triangle, the area of northern North Dakota that dominated production of the crop — but crop disease led to big reductions in durum acres.

Oats acreage also fell drastically over time, reflecting the regional trend. This year, however, oats acreage in Ramsey County is up because poor crop prices overall caused some farmers to plant alternative crops.

A barley field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
A barley field near Devils Lake, N.D. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
"There's a chance that oats could make you some pretty good money," especially since new oats varieties hold up better to crop disease, Hodous said as he stood in front of an oats field that he estimated potentially could yield well over 100 bushels per acre.

Some spring wheat fields could average 70-80 bushels per acre, with some barley fields averaging 80-90 bushels per acre and some durum fields averaging 60-70 bushels per acre — all excellent figures, Hodous said.

Trouble is, a lot of acres will produce little or no crop this growing season, pulling down average yields, he said.

Variable weather

Bill Hodous is a veteran Ramsey County extension agent who has decades of experience in the Devils Lake, N.D., area. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
Bill Hodous is a veteran Ramsey County extension agent who has decades of experience in the Devils Lake, N.D., area. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)
Problems began with uncooperative planting conditions.

"The spring was a hassle. We have a lot of prevent-plant (acres)," said Hodous, who was born, raised and once farmed himself in Ramsey County.

Then the summer turned dry. "There was a time we needed rain," and some fields in the area received too little even after heavy rains in July, Hodous said.

Though the rains initially helped crops, all the moisture eventually led to widespread drown-out, either complete or partial, in parts of otherwise good-looking fields.

"That drown-out really hurts," Hodous said.

Here's a hypothetical but realistic example: Say an 80-acre field of spring wheat produces 70 bushels on all the acres, obviously giving an average of 70 bushels per acre.

But say that same field, hit with heavy rains, produces 70 bushels per acre of 60 acres, 20 bushels per acre on 10 partially drowned-out acres and no crop on 10 completely drowned acres, giving a net average of just 55 bushels per acre.

If the field produces 70 bushels per acre of 60 acres and no crop on 20 completely drowned-out acres, the overall average falls even further to 52.5 bushels per acre.

Likewise, if 20 acres of the field couldn't be planted this spring and the remaining 60 acres produce 70 bushels per acre, the overage average yield is 52.5 bushels per acre.

The drop in average yield, whether to 55 bushels per acre or 52.5 bushels per acre, can easily mean the difference between the farmer turning a small profit on the field or finishing in the red.

Disease, weed, moisture

By and large, crop disease hasn't been a major problem in the Devils Lake area this season. Perhaps most importantly, scab, a disease that can ravage wheat and barley yields and quality, hasn't flared up noticeably, Hodous said.

But recent excess moisture has complicated weed control, especially of new-to-the-area Palmer amaranth and waterhemp. Fighting those two weeds before they're established is vital, Hodous said.

And receiving the right amount of rain, at the right times, remains crucial. Ag producers in the Devils Lake will need more rain, especially for corn, this growing season.

"But right now, we really don't need anymore," Hodous said.