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Seeds of uncertainty

USDA's 2009 prospective plantings report, released March 31, does not show that growers are ready to jump into their fields. According to several seed dealers, many are not ready even to commit to what they are going to plant.

USDA's 2009 prospective plantings report, released March 31, does not show that growers are ready to jump into their fields. According to several seed dealers, many are not ready even to commit to what they are going to plant.

"What's it is basically saying is farmers are not that excited about planting a 2009 crop," says Ray Grabanski, president of the Progressive Ag brokerage firm in Fargo, N.D. "I think the report is friendly."

Total planting acreage dropped more than 7 million acres, the report says, after projecting earlier that the number would be closer to 5 million acres.

"No one believed them," Grabanski says. "So a lot of double-crop acres don't get planted. And those wheat acres that weren't planted to winter wheat? There are 4 million left of those and everyone thought they were going to all be soybeans. Not true, according to this report."

Gainers, losers

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and the weather

Nationally, most crops are hovering within 5 percent or 6 percent of last year's acreage, according to the report. The largest declines are in durum, down 10 percent; sunflowers, down 18 percent; and canola, which is down 15 percent from last year. Acreage gainers are flax and dry edible peas, both up 9 percent, and lentils, up a whopping 38 percent to about 375,000 acres.

Producers across the nation are plagued with weather worries. Drought conditions are again hitting the winter wheat in the Southern Plains, where crops are mostly in poor to very poor condition, the report states. Drier-than-normal conditions continued in February across the majority of the South and East, and Florida's severe drought conditions have prompted farmers there to begin irrigation to ensure the coming bloom season.

The Northern Plains states have had excessive moisture to the point of flooding across several areas, including along the Red and Missouri rivers. Temperatures also have been cooler than normal, pushing back planting dates in areas of the Upper Midwest to the end of April and beyond.

It is this set of concerns that has many farmers taking a wait-and-see attitude before making their decisions on what and how much to plant, and when.

North Dakota

"Everybody seems to be sitting on their hands right now, including our own farming operation," says Ernie Hoffert, farmer and manager of the Reimers Seed Co. in Carrington, N.D. "I think farmers have done a lot of their spring intentions with a pencil."

The main problem for growers in eastern North Dakota is being unable to anticipate conditions in either the markets or the fields, he says.

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Hoffert's own fields were saturated going into freeze-up, and got plenty of moisture throughout the winter months and into late March. As a result, he does not expect to be able to plant for a good while; that usually leaves corn out of the picture.

"I just have a feeling we're going to see fewer corn acres, simply because farmers aren't going to be able to get into the fields in a timely fashion," he says. "Here, we are on the first of April, and it still looks like the middle of winter, and there's no end in sight right now."

Crop options in eastern North Dakota include sunflowers and flax, which can both go in as late as June, he says.

Many of the same concerns prevail in the western part of the state, where late snow is keeping the planter rigs in their sheds. The difference there is that most farmers know they will be planting durum or spring wheat, given the typically drier climate. Their problem now is seed supply, thanks to little or no carry-over from last year's droughty conditions.

Delbert Kadrmas, of Kadrmas Seed in Belfield, N.D., says producers in his area may have to look elsewhere for their supply.

"I would think that there's going to be a very short supply of carry-over seed in this area," he says. "They're going to end up going probably east of the (Missouri) river to find supply."

Good prices last fall prompted many to buy ahead, particularly those operators that knew they were going to need a lot of seed, he says.

"If you go out and start looking for 3,000 bushels of grain, they're not going to wait until the last minute," he says.

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And with the late winter weather, other farmers still are in a holding pattern.

"It's almost like, being that it's snowing an ugly out, nobody's looking," he says.

The numbers: According to the USDA report, corn acres are expected to decline by 250,000 acres in North Dakota, the largest decline of any state. Durum wheat acreage in the state is expected to drop sharply, about 10 percent, or 200,000 acres. Barley and spring wheat acres both will slip 6 percent, with spring wheat projected to be planted in 200,000 fewer acres in the state. Sunflower growers are expected to plant 140,000 less acres, and canola acreage is projected to be down by 150,000 acres from last year. Flaxseed acreage should be up 7 percent in North Dakota and 9 percent nationwide. Dry beans are up across the board in North Dakota, and lentils are expected to be up sharply by 47 percent. Sugar beet growers should be able to put in 6 percent more beet acres than they did in 2008, the report says.

South Dakota

Rick Vallery, executive director of South Dakota Wheat Inc., the member-based wheat growers organization based in Pierre, S.D., says the wild weather ride is only prolonging the uncertainty for the 2009 crop decisions

"My perspective, sitting in the middle of a snowstorm, with all the water we're getting, I think the (wheat) planting estimates are a little on the high side and might be proven wrong," he says.

Vallery thinks that if it stays wet, there probably will be more soybeans and sunflowers planted. He says the northeast and north-central parts of the state have had a very hard winter, and there's "water in a lot of places that I haven't seen before." He says he's also skeptical there will be a normal spring.

"I think it's going to be wet and it's going to be tough to get some acres planted," Vallery says.

Alan May, South Dakota State University grain marketing specialist in Brookings, S.D., describes it as a "middle-of-the road" report, with no major shift toward corn like the past two years.

South Dakota went counter to national trends, with a 3 percent increase in corn acres intentions, and a cut in soybean acres.

"If they can get the yields they know they can get under good growing conditions, and can do a good job on pre-pricing they have a potential for good net revenue, compared to soybeans, even with a price run-up."

May notes that intentions reports typically don't come out the same as June actual plantings reports, which will depend on price and weather shifts.

The numbers: Corn acres are expected to be up by 3 percent to 4.9 million acres, up 150,000 acres. Soybean acres are expected to be 3.95 million acres, down 150,000 or 4 percent from 2008, but still 21 percent greater than 2007, according to the report. Sorghum acres will be down 12 percent, according to the report. Oats at 250,000 acres, up 14 percent. Barley production will be 60,000 acres, down 5 percent. All wheat acres are pegged at 3.26 million, down 11 percent from 2008 and down 8 percent from 2007. About 1.75 million of those acres will be winter wheat, down 15 percent from last year. Durum production will include 10,000 acres, down 9 percent from 2008. The state's spring wheat plantings would be 1.5 million acres, or 6 percent less than 2008, but nearly 1 percent greater than 2007. Oil-type sunflowers will hit 450,000 acres down 18 percent from last year, but still 14 percent greater than 2007. Nonoil flowers will hit 40,000 acres, down 20 percent from 2008, but double the 2007 plantings. Farmers will plant 10,000 acres of flaxseed, up 43 percent from 2008. Dry edible bean production is reported at 11,500 intended acres, up 35 percent from last year, but less than the 13,000 acres planted in 2007. Chickpea production increase 38 percent to 3,300 acres.

Minnesota

In western Minnesota's Red River Valley, there is less hesitation to commit to seed plantings, one way or the other, according to Steve Ross, owner of Ross Seed Co. in Fisher, Minn.

"There has been some of that," he says. "My sense is that, in my own area, there isn't a lot of that. But if you go east or west out of the valley, I see more of it. My sense is that probably 90 percent of the acreage decisions in my area are done. I have not seen any big shifts."

The intentions in the Red River Valley, according to his sales, are pretty well in line with historic trends. He has seen "a slight uptick in soybeans and a slight downtick in corn," and wheat, edible beans and sugar beets all are pretty stable.

Mac Ehrhardt, owner of Albert Lea (Minn.) Feeds, agrees with the crop report.

"It feels to us like that crop report isn't crazy," he says. "I can definitely say that our corn sales are up and our bean sales are down, which is the opposite, frankly, of what I would have predicted last November."

While he still feels there are a lot of soybean seeds yet to be bought in southeast Minnesota, corn seems to be outpacing the rest in the area on lower prices.

"Some companies have been very aggressive about cutting pricing to sell more seed," he says. "The multistack-traited corn prices have been cut quite a bit in the marketplace."

For Minnesota growers, there still is hope of getting into the ground in time for corn.

"I think everyone's remaining optimistic that this thing will turn around and we'll get to get planted," Ehrhardt says. "We're further south than this big snowstorm they've got (March 30). But it doesn't make you feel very optimistic when it keeps wanting to act like winter."

The numbers: Overall, Minnesota corn production is expected to decline by 100,000 acres. Barley acreage is projected to be down 20 percent or more, and spring wheat planting in Minnesota will drop by 100,000 acres, the report says.

Montana

Bruce Smith, Dawson County extension ag agent in Glendive, Mont., says it's fairly dry in his area and pretty wet north of the Missouri River.

"South of here, it's snowed in, but not a lot of crops grown," he says.

Through the Yellowstone River Valley, irrigated farmers are optimistic because of plentiful moisture in the mountains. There have been four or five years of continuing drought, so nonirrigated farms are cautious.

Crop watchers are curious about how many malting barley acres will pan out, with changes in Anheuser-Busch to a Belgian company InBev SA. Barley acres will hit 900,000, up 5 percent from 2008, but the same as 2007.

Smith says farmers have contracted enough sugar beets to keep the Sidney (Mont.) Sugars Co. plant up and running, while last year's negotiations brought in fewer acres than desired. Growers were allowed to use Roundup Ready beets in 2009. The state is expected to plant 37.500 acres of sugar beets, up 18 percent from 2009, but still 21 percent less than 2007 levels.

A lot of winter wheat went in last fall and there has been pretty good snow cover to sustain it, and it probably will displace spring wheat, Smith says.

The numbers: Montana corn acres are expected to be up by 3 percent to 370,000 acres. All wheat acres will be 5.29 million, 8 percent fewer than 2008, but up 2 percent from 2007. About 800,000 of those acres will be winter wheat, down 46 percent from last year. Montana will plant 540,000 acres of durum, according to the report, down 11 percent. Montana's spring wheat production, at 2.25 million acres, would be 12 percent than 2008, if realized, and down about 8 percent from 2007. Oat acres at 75,000 acres, up 25 percent. Montana canola plantings would run 6,000 acres, 20 percent less than 2008 and 30 percent less than 2007. Flax plantings will hit 13,000 acres, up 44 percent from 2008, but down 38 percent from 2007 levels. The state will have 10,700 acres planted into dry edible beans, down 4 percent from last year. Chickpea acreage could be 42 percent higher at 3,700 acres, according to the report. Montana lentil plantings will go to 125,000 acres, a 51 percent increase. Dry edible pea production will hit 260,000 acres, up 6 percent.

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