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Farmers in northern Red River Valley would be 'happy with 50%' of normal wheat crop

Adam Bernhardson, a crop consultant with North Star Ag Services, said a lack of moisture will mean far below average cereal crops in the northern Red River Valley.

DRAYTON, NORTH DAKOTA — In a normal year, farmers in the northern Red River Valley would expect at least 70 bushels per acre on their wheat fields.

This year?

"I'd be happy with 50%" of a normal crop, said Adam Bernhardson, a crop consultant with North Star Ag, based in Warren, Minnesota.

In a good year, some varieties would be mid-thigh or maybe even waist high. This year, it's barely knee high.

In the midst of the drought that has dried out soil moisture across much of the region, even farmers in the fertile valley have lowered their expectations this year. In a field west of Drayton, off Highway 66 during the Agweek Cereal Crop Tour, Bernhardson said the quality of the crop will be variable.

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Cereal grain crops in the northern Red River Valley likely will have far below average yields in 2021 due to drought. Derek Fletcher / Agweek

"It all comes down to moisture," he said. "There's a decent crop in the low areas. But the high ground really burnt up."

Cereal crops got off to the "best spring in recent memory," with good stands and good planting conditions, Bernhardson said. However, there always was a caveat that it would be a good crop but "we need to get rain." Time after time, the radar looked promising only to have storms fizzle out.

The drought conditions have been a big change for northern North Dakota and Minnesota, where too wet of conditions are far more common. Bernhardson said crops in some places still are living on the excess moisture from last year or from one large storm during the growing season. For example, farmers in the Argyle, Minnesota, area received 6 to 9 inches of rain this spring, which has helped the crop substantially. Some farmers might see yields run above 60 bushels per acre, but that will be rare.

"Everyone's got fields that'll run far worse," he said.

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While 2021 will be an off year for cereal grain yields in the northern Red River Valley, crop consultant Adam Bernhardson still expects wheat and barley to be important crops in the region. Derek Fletcher / Agweek

Bernhardson said it comes down to the fact that most fields haven't received enough moisture to fill the heads on the grains. He expects to see a substantial amount of grain "going out the back of the combine."

While he didn't grow up in the farm and was far too young to be working as a crop consultant in the dry years of the 1980s, Bernhardson said he's talked to farmers who say this year's crop is as bad or worse than in those years. However, advancements in genetics and management practices have helped some crops hang on this year.

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"Our varieties of genetics have really helped things. I think our base yield is much better because of that," he said. he also noted that while most farmers still use conventional tillage "you don't see the plough anymore and I think that makes a difference."

Cereal grains like wheat and barley still fit well into rotations in the northern Red River Valley, and Bernhardson doesn't expect that to change any time soon. He expects this year's harvest to really kick into gear during the first week of August.

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Adam Bernhardson is a crop consultant with North Star Ag. Derek Fletcher / Agweek

"Growers aren't going to be in as good of a mood this year," Bernhardson said.

There are good things about the 2021 grain crops, though. for one thing, Bernhardson said the vast majority of acres did not need fungicide. Most years, fields are sprayed at heading, so farmers saved some money there.

"Chemical costs will be down, but yield will be too," he said.

The other interesting factor will be where the wheat markets go from here.

"I'm no market expert," Bernhardson said. "It doesn't seem to me like the rest of the country really realizes how small this crop is. We get a small little rain and the market goes down, but if you're actually down here, you realize the rain wasn't enough to make a difference in the crop."

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