Abnormal planting seasons might be the new norm in Upper Midwest

Marlow Nelson, a 68-year-old Powers Lake, N.D., farmer, used to have a pretty good idea of what spring planting season would bring. Though no two springs were quite the same, and year-to-year variations could be extreme, most springs fell into a ...

Water stands in a muddy field north of Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013.

Marlow Nelson, a 68-year-old Powers Lake, N.D., farmer, used to have a pretty good idea of what spring planting season would bring. Though no two springs were quite the same, and year-to-year variations could be extreme, most springs fell into a fairly predictable pattern.

But the past few years have jarred Nelson's lifetime of experience.

"What I thought I knew doesn't seem to be true anymore. I just don't know what to expect now," Nelson says.

It's a common refrain in Upper Midwest agriculture, which, for the fourth straight year, faces another strange spring. Abnormal, it seems, is the new normal.

The moisture-light winter and freakishly warm mid-March weather should allow many area farmers to get an early start on spring field work. That would be a mostly good thing -- early planted crops usually, though not always, fare better than late-planted ones.


But planting too soon would increase the risk of frost damage to young, emerging plants. It also could jeopardize potential payments from the federal crop insurance program.

What's more, a warm, dry and early spring would increase the need for timely rains later in the growing season. Upper Midwest crops, especially nonirrigated ones, always require precipitation at key points in their growth. But a dry spring would reduce available subsoil moisture, making timely rains more important than ever.

Most of Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas already are "abnormally dry," with patches of "moderate drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of academic and federal government scientists.

Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University Extension climate field specialist, says she's not overly worried yet.

"It will probably get a little bit more droughty, a little bit worse, before it gets better," she says. "I think getting into May, it looks a little bit better on the moisture side, at least in South Dakota."

In contrast, and another sign of the region's recent expect-the-unexpected springs, much of the western Dakotas and Montana -- where dry conditions are a frequent concern -- are in relatively good shape on moisture, according to the Drought Monitor.

Take that with a grain or two of salt, however.

Most Montana farmers are concerned about moisture, says Bruce Maxwell, professor of agroecology at Montana State University.


What's clear, though, is that early signals point to a potential repeat of 2012, "arguably our earliest spring season ever," says Mark Seeley, Minnesota Extension climatologist.

As he notes, that year's early start was followed by an exceptionally cool, wet and late spring in 2013 and 2014 "that really pushed them (farmers) back on their heels," both in planting and subsequent weed control, Seeley says.

What's normal?

Edwards says she hears "all the time" from farmers and others who claim the region's weather has turned abnormal.

Seeley says "that perception is definitely there."

But they and other weather experts have a different take.

Fluctuations in weather are inevitable, and the so-called normal is actually an average of those variations, experts say.

"In a climate sense, it would be abnormal to be normal," Edwards says. "The average is just a statistic, it's not reality."


Generalizations about the sprawling Upper Midwest, which ranges from the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota to the wheat-dominated fields of central Montana, are always risky.

But USDA says the following generally is true for wheat, corn and soybeans, the region's three major crops:

• Wheat: Planting usually begins in early or mid-April, with the most active planting period in late April and the first three weeks of May.

• Soybeans: Planting usually begins in early May, with the most active planting period the final three weeks of May and the first week of June.

• Corn: Planting usually begins in late April, with the most active planting period in May.

Late-planted wheat can produce good crops; record-setting yields after the wet, late springs of 2013 and 2014 prove that. But the crop, a cool-season grass, generally fares best when it's planted early, allowing it to avoid most mid-summer heat.

Corn and soybeans, in turn, generally do best when planted early enough to minimize risk of early fall frost.

An unusually late first frost in the fall of 2013 allowed corn and beans to overcome late planting that spring. But late-planted 2014 crops were hurt by frost -- again accentuating the importance of early planting.


"The earlier you can plant, the better," Edwards says.

Earliest date

Record-setting mid-March temperatures across the region -- for instance, the mercury soared to 84 on March 15 in Sioux Falls, S.D. -- boosted the odds for early planting this year by raising soil temperatures.

One example: in Luverne, Minn., in the southwest corner of the state, the 6-inch soil temperature shot from 31 degrees in early March to 41 degrees in mid-March.

But planting too early can be risky, reflecting what federal crop insurance identifies as the "earliest planting date." That's the "earliest date an insured crop can be planted and qualify for replanting payment," according to USDA's Risk Management Agency.

The RMA administers the federal crop insurance program, while private companies sell and service crop insurance policies.

Farmers who plant too early won't qualify for replanting payments if they need to replant a field because of bad weather.

The date varies by crop from state to state and even from county to county, depending on the risk associated with the crop in that state or county. Typically, areas of the northern Upper Midwest have a slightly later date than areas in the southern Upper Midwest.


Farmers with questions about their earliest planting data should contact their insurance agency, use the RMA's "actuarial information browser 2015."

The site has other useful information, too, including sections on locating crop insur- ance agents and estimating crop insurance costs.

The earliest planting date, seldom a major factor in Upper Midwest planting decisions, played a substantial role in 2012. It could do so again this year if the second half of March is dry and warm.

In contrast, the "final planting date" -- the date by which a crop must initially be planted to be insured for the full production or amount of insurance per acre -- came into play for many area farmers in the late, wet springs of 2013 and 2014.

Thinking long term

Spring, on average, has been coming a little earlier in the Upper Midwest. It doesn't happen every year -- 2013 and 2014 show that -- but the pattern definitely exists, weather experts say.

The past two years don't appear to negate that trend, experts say.

"I expect that over the coming decade, we'll see earlier planting seasons than later planting seasons," Seeley says.


If so, crops such as corn will remain increasingly popular in areas where relatively short growing seasons have caused wheat to dominate, Maxwell says.

Another long-term trend remains in place, too.

Whether spring is late or early, wet or dry, good farming practices remain essential, Don Tanaka says.

A retired soil scientist who worked for USDA's Agricultural Research Service, he spent 11 years with the ARS in Sydney, Mont., and more than 20 years with the ARS station in Mandan, N.D.

Tillage systems that minimize soil disruption and conserve moisture are always important, regardless if spring is wet or dry, Tanaka says.

Greater efficiency

Ideally, area farmers plant just one crop in a day or even over several days. That reduces the time and effort needed to switch planters and other equipment from one crop to another.

But in the late, wet springs of 2013 and 2014, many farmers had to plant whenever a field became dry enough. That required switching between crops, with some producers planting as many as five crops on the same day.

An early start to planting this year would allow greater efficiency, a big consideration when lower crop prices have cut into profit margins, Seeley says.

"It's very important to get things done in a timely manner," he says.

He encourages farmers to check into the extension service's best management practices, which can help with planting decisions.

Reason for optimism

For now, at least, the overall outlook for the 2015 growing season is upbeat.

"Generally, I'm positive about planting seasons," Edwards says. "There should be no major problems getting seed into the ground. With some moisture in May, we'll be off to a good start."

Nelson says he's optimistic about the upcoming growing season, too. But like many other Upper Midwest agriculturalists, he'd prefer a little less volatility at planting time.

Erratic springs make farming "a lot tougher now," especially for older farmers accustomed to more predictable weather, he says.

This winter, Nelson and his son, who's taking over the family farming operation, met with their crop insurance agent.

"I told them, 'I used to think I had this halfway figured out. But after what's happened these past few years, I don't think I know any more than when I got started (in farming). My son said, 'Well, that makes you even with the rest of us.' And I said, 'No, I think you're ahead. Because you've got these past few years (to guide you) and I remember the way it used to be.'"

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