Wet weather delays spring planting in the Red River Valleyby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Spring planting is nearly finished across much of Minnesota. But in the soggy Red River Valley, many farmers are still waiting to get into the fields.
Moorhead, Minn. — Jay Nord should be finished planting wheat and corn by now on his farm about 20 miles south of Moorhead. This year all he can do is wait for the muddy fields to dry.
He's been checking, double-checking and triple- checking equipment that sits in the yard, ready for spring planting. And most days he jumps in his pickup to check on fields he knows are still too wet.
"You want to keep track a little bit of what's going on in your neighborhood," Nord explained as he drove down a rutted gravel road. "There's water standing up there. The water is going down. There was water in those rows yesterday."
Thousands of acres of last year's sugar beet crop are rotting in the ground, and corn still stands in some fields because the ground was too wet to harvest last fall.
Jay Nord harvested much of his corn and soybeans after the ground froze last fall.
This spring the ground is wet and cold, in fact there's still frost a couple of feet down in many fields.
Nord estimates it will take two weeks of warm dry weather before he can start preparing some of these fields for seed.
With every day that passes, he knows his wheat harvest is shrinking.
"If we can get done with the wheat by the 15th it's bad, but it's not a disaster," Nord said. "Anything after the first of May, it's probably getting to be a bushel a day now. Cottonwoods are starting to bud and that's a real bad sign if you're not done planting wheat."
Wheat and sugar beets should be planted in mid-to-late April and corn should be in the ground by early May.
Soybeans can be planted later, into early June, with no effect on yield.
Jay Nord is considering planting more soybeans this year because of the late spring.
Delayed planting in several Midwestern states has pushed grain markets higher the past couple of weeks.
"So that's helped a little bit. But it's still going to be tough," said Nord. "Even last winter, the cost of production on wheat was break even at best and now you put a late planting in. But last year we planted some wheat pretty late and it wasn't too bad. You really don't know until the first of August what the wheat is going to look like."
A good crop next fall will require perfect summer weather.
But according to University of Minnesota Extension Agent Ray Bisek, the odds of perfect weather are slim.
Bisek, who works in Norman and Mahnomen counties, midway between Moorhead and Crookston, said the next two weeks are critical for many farmers.
"They have some fields out there that are so saturated that it's going to take a good two to three weeks to get those fields dried out," said Bisek. "So it really hinges on the next couple of weeks. If we get any rain and then the type of drying days we need to get this ground ready. Showers and cool weather doesn't help."
Showers are in the forecast for much of this week in the Red River Valley.
Crop insurance will pay farmers for what's called prevented planting if they can't plant by deadlines set for each crop. But most farmers say the prevented planting payment is so small, they'd rather risk planting a late crop.
If the weather stays wet, it's likely more farmers will consider switching from wheat or corn to soybeans.
Sugar beets farmers have fewer options, since they are under contract to grow a specific number of acres of beets.
But according to University of Minnesota Small Grains Agronomist Jochum Wiersma, switching crops isn't as easy as just buying new seed.
Many farmers apply fertilizer to their fields in the fall preparing for a specific crop.
"There's this catch that if fertilizer has been applied then you have problems because soybeans need a different fertilizer regime than wheat and barley do," said Wiersma. "So, there's difficult choices, let's put it that way."
Red River Valley farmers have had lots of time to weigh their options the past couple of weeks as they wait for fields to dry.
If the weather doesn't improve in the next two weeks, they might be forced to consider switching to short season crops or simply not planting some fields.
- Morning Edition, 05/12/2009, 7:45 a.m.