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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald , Published March 20 2012

Farmers gamble on warm weather, start planting early

GRAND FORKS - Mike Bergeron beat the calendar, planting spring wheat in the last days of winter, nearly a month before he usually does such seeding.

He and John Ross farm together as R&B Growers north of Fisher, Minn. They started seeding wheat Saturday, apparently before other farmers in the region.

By Monday afternoon, they had 450 acres seeded, the earliest he had ever done it “by a long shot,” Bergeron said after parking his rig Monday. “We’re sort of amazed ourselves…. Last year it was May 3 before we began planting.”

Bergeron got the OK from Jochum Weirsma, small grains specialist at the University of Minnesota’s research center in Crookston.

“He’s taking a calculated risk,” Weirsma said. On the one hand, early planting gains early moisture and more growing season, he said. On the other hand, if freezing temperatures return, they can damage the seed germination or the plant itself, he said.

Normally, early April is early for wheat planting in these parts and it seemed like even later, Bergeron said.

“It’s really good,” he said of the field conditions. “It’s like planting in the middle or late April, everything went in really nice.”

To be able to plant this early is rare.

“I don’t think we keep records on (earliest planting dates),” Weirsma said. “From what I have heard so far is that 1953 apparently was a really early year where most of the grain got planted before April 1. But as far as my memory serves me, I don’t think I have ever had anything close to this early in this neck of the woods.”

In the drought years of the late 1980s, some early planting of wheat took place across the region. And in 2000, a few farmers in Walsh County in northeast North Dakota, got wheat seeded by March 21.

A main reason for the early jump is the record warm and dry fall and winter, Bergeron said.

“We are worried about the moisture in the ground,” he said. Getting the seed in the ground now will give it a chance to use all the early soil moisture available, he said.

Plus, this wheat will mature early, beating the dog days of late June when too much heat can hurt normal spring wheat crops at a certain stage of development.

Spring wheat will begin germinating when the Red River Valley black dirt reaches 40 degrees, Weirsma said.

On Monday, Ross put a thermometer down four inches into the field and it showed a feverish 50 degrees, Bergeron said.

“If it doesn’t rain tonight, I probably will put in another quarter or two tomorrow or Wednesday,” Bergeron said.

He and Ross also grow sugar beets and soybeans, and for the first time in three years, will plant sunflowers again.

“We are kind of hedging against a drier summer,” he said. “And sunflower plant has got a deep root. That’s why we are putting some in this year.”

While the chances of freezing temperatures from now until May 15 are pretty good, based on climate records for Crookston, the chances of enough cold to truly cripple or kill the wheat plant, aren’t so large, Weirsma told Bergeron.

Especially since the weather forecast for the next 10 days sounds very favorable, with above-average temperatures.

Bergeron said he expects to see wheat plants emerge in nine or 10 days.

Although crop insurance won’t cover the re-planting of crops put in before the official first seeding date, which is still down the road, the federally-backed insurance still will cover the crop once it’s up, Bergeron said.

“I figure we are gambling about $4,000 per quarter (section) in the price of wheat seed and diesel to go back over it, so we got $12,000 at risk right now,” he said. “I think we have risked a heck of a lot more than that(before).”