Slow start on planting

Mike Kelly came home from college in 1974 to help with spring planting on his family farm near Niagara, N.D. Kelly, who now runs the farm, remembers the late, wet spring that delayed planting into June and the poor harvest that followed. Though t...

Mike Kelly came home from college in 1974 to help with spring planting on his family farm near Niagara, N.D.

Kelly, who now runs the farm, remembers the late, wet spring that delayed planting into June and the poor harvest that followed.

Though this year's planting pace is far behind normal, it's too early to predict a repeat of 1974. Warm, dry weather the last 10 days to two weeks of May could be a game-changer for farmers, allowing them to make rapid planting progress.

The weather cooperated early in the week of May 16, allowing many area farmers to get back into their fields. However, forecasts called for rain later in the week.

What is clear is that farmers have been waiting -- their emotions a cocktail of frustration, impatience and growing anxiety -- to kick planting into high gear.


As of the middle of May, "I haven't even turned a wheel. I want to rock and roll so badly," says Kelly, who was hoping to get into his fields in the middle of the week of May 16.

But wet fields have forced him and many other farmers to remain on the sidelines. In North Dakota, 39 percent of the state had surplus topsoil moisture as of May 16, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It's so wet in much of the region that even eastern Montana, which often is short of moisture, is struggling with planting delays.

"It's just very wet," says David Bertelsen, extension agent in Wibaux County, in east-central Montana.

Heavy snow this winter, followed by more snow and rain this spring, prevented farmers in his county from planting in the first half of May.

To be sure, many fields in the region are planted, often ones with good drainage that make them conductive to early planting. And there are geographic pockets, which avoided some of the spring rains, where planting is on schedule.

"We've really been making good progress in our area. We've just missed the big rains," says David Iverson, who farms near Astoria, S.D., which is near Brookings.

His corn was in the ground by mid-May, and he hopes to finish planting his soybeans in good order.


But most farmers on the Northern Plains aren't doing so well.

"It's the most challenging spring I can remember. And I'm 50, so that's really saying something," says Byron Richard, a Belfield, N.D., farmer.

A blizzard on the weekend of April 30 and May 1 brought planting in his area to a standstill. Then, after the snow melted, many fields were too wet to work, he says.

Late planting carries risk

Planting early doesn't guarantee good crops. Planting late doesn't guarantee bad ones. But getting crops planted in a timely fashion increases the odds of attractive yields.

Wheat, North Dakota's most important crop, is a cool-season grass. Planting late exposes it to more midsummer heat, potentially hurting yields.

For each day wheat is planted after May 15, yields can be expected to drop by 1.5 percent per day, according to information from the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

However, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, is predicting below-average temperatures in June and July on the Northern Plains. If the summer is indeed mild, then "reasonable" wheat yields still can be expected even if wheat is planted a little later than ideal, the NDSU Extension Service says.


Late-planted corn carries greater risk of damage from early frost. For each date that corn is planted after late May, yields can be expected to drop by 2 percent per day, according to the NDSU Extension Service

A cool summer would provide fewer "heat units," causing corn to mature more slowly and putting it at even greater risk of early frost.

Odds are good that both summer and fall will be cool, says Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist

"It's going to be very hard to break this cycle," he says.

Positives to consider

It's tough to be optimistic when fields are too wet for planting. Farmers, after all, make their money raising and selling crops.

But not everything is gloomy this late, wet spring.

Farmers generally can benefit from good crop insurance this year if necessary, says Dennis Walsh, chief credit officer of First International Bank, which has offices across North Dakota, as well as two locations in Arizona and one in Minnesota.

Because of a change at the federal level, the price at which crops can be insured under yield and revenue protection was finalized March 1. Prices at the time were near or at record highs, providing farmers with crop insurance at levels high enough to cover most farmers' costs.

Planting late today also is less onerous than it once was because of bigger machinery and modern technology, Kelly and others say.

Issues going forward

Supplies of nitrogen fertilizer, especially anhydrous ammonia, could in short supply because the planting window is so narrow this year, says Jeremy Pederson, area extension specialist/cropping systems with the North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Service in Minot.

The final planting date for full insurance coverage, which varies by crop and geographic area, also will be a big factor.

For instance, the final planting date for full insurance coverage in North Dakota for corn is May 25, except for Cass, Ransom, Richland and Sargent counties, where May 31 is the final date.

If slow planting progress persists, area farmers could plant more canola. North Dakota accounts for about 90 percent of U.S. canola production.

Recent research has found that new canola varieties has reduced the risk of planting the crop in late May and even early June, officials says.

The canola industry has asked federal crop insurance officials to push back the insurance deadline for planting the crop, and federal officials say they're considering doing so.

High prices raise stakes

Farmers want to get their crops planted on time every year. But strong commodity prices this year intensify that desire.

A year ago, for instance, new crop wheat was selling for about $5 per bushel at area grain elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. This year, new crop wheat is selling for about $9 per bushel at those elevators; the price had been even higher earlier this spring.

But with planting delayed, farmers aren't sure of how many acres they'll get seeded or many bushels they might harvest. That limits their ability to sell in advance a portion of their crop at current prices, which will cost them money if prices fall.

And, of course, unplanted fields produce no crop -- particularly painful when prices are high.

"To have prices like this and maybe not be able to take advantage, well, that's hard," Kelly says.

"All we can do is stay field-ready so that we can really go when we're able to," he says.

Wet fields, gloomy stats

Planting of just every crop grown in the Northern Plains is tardy this spring.

A few examples, all as of May 15, from the National Ag Statistics Service:

- In South Dakota, 2 percent of corn had emerged, compared with the five-year average of 11 percent.

- Minnesota farmers had prepared 59 percent of corn ground for planting, compared with the five-year average of 88 percent.

- In North Dakota, 1 percent of spring wheat had emerged, compared with the five-year average of 33 percent.

- In Montana, 27 percent of durum was planted, down from the five-year average of 67 percent.

Related Topics: CROPS
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