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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 06 2012

Can’t beet the heat: Sugar beet piles need extended periods of colder temps

FARGO – Warm winter days have been a joy so far for many people but could be costly for the region’s farmers – and some homeowners, too.

Without snow cover, winter wheat and alfalfa are vulnerable to damage from the deep cold that will probably hit the region yet, experts said Friday.

Evergreens could also be damaged if warm temperatures bring them out of dormancy with a couple months of hard winter to go.

Meanwhile, Red River Valley sugar beets in their piles are still providing good product as they’re processed. But they could use some deep freeze time – and soon.

“Our hope is the weather will turn cold in the near future,” said Jeff Schweitzer, spokes­man for American Crystal Sugar Co. in Moorhead. “We need several weeks of below 20-degree temperatures to get those beets frozen so we can make sugar through April and May.”

Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, based in Wahpeton, is two-thirds finished with its beet processing, according to the co-op’s website, and comments there indicate Minn-Dak officials, too, are waiting for colder weather.

Winter wheat is still dormant, said Joel Ransom, a North Dakota State University Extension Service agronomist for cereal crops. If the wheat remains dormant, the half million acres planted in the state should be safe, but “if they did (break dormancy), it would be bad news,” Ransom said.

Without snow to insulate the wheat, deep cold could kill a significant share of the crop, he said.

About 20 million bushels of winter wheat were harvested last year, Ransom said. At $5 to $6 a bushel, it’s worth $100 million to $120 million, he said.

Alfalfa should also still be dormant, said Hans Kandel, an NDSU Extension agronomist.

But, again, without snow cover, the crowns of the plants below the surface of the soil can be damaged by subzero cold, he said.

Around the house, hearty perennials such as hostas should survive, unless warm temps get them growing, said Todd Weinmann, the Cass County Extension agent for horticulture.

He said that if that happens, expect some damage and losses.

But evergreens could already be in trouble, said Joe Zeleznik, an NDSU Extension forester.

“The evergreens are the ones I’m worried about. Right now, with the warmer weather, it’s very likely they’ve come out of dormancy a little bit,” Zeleznik said.

“They’ve de-hardened. Are they going to be able to re-harden (for winter weather)?” he asked. “That’s going to be hard on them, especially since it’s early January, and we’ve got a lot of winter to go. We’ll likely see some damage to conifers” by late March or early April.

Deciduous trees are less of a worry, except for the ones that are marginally hearty for this climate, Zeleznik said.

He said some damage might be avoided by applying antidessicants to conifers to help them retain moisture. The chemicals must be applied at temperatures above freezing.

“It certainly won’t hurt, and it might help,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583