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VIDEO: Planting more advanced than usual across Upper Midwest

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Jon Hanson is new to agriculture. But he's already figured out a basic truth of Upper Midwest ag."When the weather is good in planting, you really go. And we have been. The days get to be pretty long. It's great, though," say...

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Paul Coppin, general manager of Reynolds United Cooperative in Reynolds, N.D., answers questions about his expectations of the coming planting and harvest season on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Jon Hanson is new to agriculture. But he’s already figured out a basic truth of Upper Midwest ag.
“When the weather is good in planting, you really go. And we have been. The days get to be pretty long. It’s great, though,” says the Grand Forks, N.D.-based Hanson, who began driving a fertilizer truck for J.R. Simplot Co. this spring. He talked briefly with Agweek at a field near Grand Forks, where he had just delivered fertilizer for a soon-to-be-planted potato field.
Overall, this is shaping up as one of the Upper Midwest’s smoothest, most hassle-free planting seasons in recent memory. A winter with little snow followed by mostly favorable spring temperatures allowed farmers to get an early start, and occasional shots of rain replenished soil moisture without causing excessive planting delays, farmers and others say.
“It’s been a vanilla spring,” or one with mild, favorable conditions that favor planting, says Paul Coppin, manager of Reynolds (N.D.) United Co-op.
One sign of how well planting has gone: Sugar beet planting in Minnesota and North Dakota was virtually wrapped up by May 8, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On average, only half of beets were planted in the two states by that date in 2011 to 2015, NASS says.
Rain in South Dakota
It’s always risky to generalize about weather in the sprawling Upper Midwest, which stretches from eastern Minnesota across the Dakotas to the mountains of Montana. Inevitably, some areas are too wet or too dry, too cold or too hot. This year, bucking the regional trend, some farmers in South Dakota have struggled with excess moisture. Just 1.3 days were suitable for farming in South Dakota in the week ending May 1.
But Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University extension climate field specialist, says the spring rains did more good than harm.
The moisture helped relieve dryness in parts of the state, and warm weather in the week ending May 8 helped South Dakota farmers make up at least part of planting time lost earlier, she says.
“With the equipment they (farmers) have today, a lot of acres can be planted pretty quickly,” she says.
As of May 8, the 2016 planting pace for South Dakota corn and soybeans, the state’s two leading crops, was roughly the same as the 2011 to ’15 average, while planting progress for spring wheat in the state was ahead of the five-year average, NASS says.
Because it’s still early in the growing season, there’s plenty of time for South Dakota corn and soybeans to receive the growing degree days they need, even after rain delays this spring, Edwards says.
Growing degree days - also known as growing degree units, heat units, thermal units and thermal time - measure heat accumulation within a specified temperature range and provide the energy that crops need.

So far, so good
In North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, overall 2016 planting is much more advanced than the 2011 to ’15 average, and also more advanced than the long-term average. Historically, most corn and soybeans are in the ground by the end of May. This year, that happened in much of the region by the middle of the month.
Doug Suhr farms in Kasson, Minn., in the eastern part of the state. As of the middle of May, he says, “I don’t think there’s any corn (in his area) that isn’t in the ground this year. And maybe two-thirds of the soybeans are planted.”
He recently visited the Moline, Ill., area and says, “There’s more corn sticking out of the ground here (eastern Minnesota) than in central Illinois. And some guys (in Illinois) were just getting started on soybeans.”
All the 2016 Upper Midwest crop isn’t in the ground this year - and harvest is still months away - but farmers, who like to bill themselves as optimists, are upbeat about yield prospects.
“So far, things are really looking good,” says Rob Davies, a Larslan, Mont., farmer and president of the state Grain Growers Association. He farms in northeast Montana.
Generally good soil moisture - with the prospect for additional rain in the middle of May - further brightens the outlook, Davis and others say.
Still, crop prices, despite a recent rally, especially for soybeans, remain low enough that profits will be hard to come by, even with good yields, agriculturalists say.
Farmers spent the winter wondering what crop held the best potential for a profitable combination of both good prices and good yields, a combination sometimes described as “hitting a home run.”
Coppin says the focus should be “on hitting singles,” or achieving more modest goals.
What’s left?
Wheat, corn and soybeans are the region’s three most important crops and often are referred to as the “major” crops.
Wheat, a cool-season grass that fares best when it avoids late-summer heat, is the first major crop to be planted. Corn is second, soybeans third. In their young, developmental stages, soybeans are more susceptible than corn to above-ground frost damage, so planting corn ahead of soybeans generally makes sense.
Most of the region’s wheat is in the ground now. There are exceptions, such as parts of Montana where farmers planted lentils and other pulse crops first and are finishing wheat, Davis says.
Spring wheat planted as of May 8:

  • Minnesota: 87 percent, compared to the five-year average of 46 percent.
  • Montana: 78 percent, compared to the five-year average of 53 percent.
  • North Dakota: 60 percent, up from the five-year average of 39 percent.
  • South Dakota: 92 percent, up from the five-year average of 76 percent.

Corn planted as of May 8:

  • Minnesota: 89 percent, up from the five-year average of 45 percent.
  • North Dakota: 51 percent, compared with the five-year average of 27 percent.
  • South Dakota: 39 percent, down from the five-year average 42 percent.

Soybeans planted as of May 8:

  • Minnesota: 46 percent, up from five-year average of 18 percent.
  • North Dakota: 25 percent, nearly triple the five-year average of 9 percent.
  • South Dakota: 10 percent, the same as the five-year average.

Moisture an issue later?
For now, moisture isn’t a major concern across the Upper Midwest. As of May 8, both topsoil and subsoil moisture were adequate in a majority of Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to NASS.
But Upper Midwest farmers often say they’re just a week or two away from drought, that even a relatively short stretch of hot, dry weather damages their crops.
There’s reason to think it could happen again this year. The weather phenomena known as La Nina, which involves cooler-than-normal water in the Pacific and typically brings below-average precipitation during the Upper Midwest growing season, appears to be gathering strength. A powerful La Nina could cause much of the Upper Midwest to run short of moisture as summer goes on.
Weather experts say predicting summer moisture is more difficult than predicting summer temperatures. That’s because localized thundershowers can dump relatively large amounts of precipitation on one farm, while supplying little, if any, moisture to nearby farms.
While La Nina warrants continued attention, farmers and others shouldn’t assume the summer is bound to be dry, Edwards says.
“A lot can happen by harvest,” she says.

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