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By Jonathan Kuntson, Published April 19 2013

When will planting begin in Upper Midwest?

By Jonathan Knutson

Forum News Service

In a normal year, most area farmers are planting, or soon will be, in mid-April.

This isnt a normal year.

Though many producers are in their fields, heavy and slow-to-melt snow cover in some parts of the Upper Midwest is delaying planting.

Potentially heavy flooding in some areas, particularly the Red River Basin of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, further complicates the planting outlook.

Drought adds still another dimension to planting. Some farmers are debating whether to plant now in dry soil or hold off in hopes of receiving traditional spring rains.

Were incredibly dry here, says Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre, S.D.

His drought-stricken area received virtually no snow this winter until a blizzard hit the week of April.

The new precipitation helps some, but the area is still far short of normal moisture, he says. Until theres a rain, there are some guys who are going to sit on (unplanted fields), he says.

Northwest North Dakota received heavy snow this winter and was still wet and white in early April, says John Woodbury, location manager in Ross for Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative, which also has locations in Parshall, New Town, Palermo and Stanley.

In Minnesota, There will be a lot of difference in when planting starts, says Bob Zelenka, executive director of the state Grain and Feed Association. Heavy snowfall in west-central and northwest Minnesota will cause farmers there to start planting later than their peers elsewhere in the state.

Regionwide, theres no cause for panic yet about late planting. Typically, planting doesnt begin in earnest until mid or late April, reaching top gear in early May.

Still, theres reason for concern, at least in some areas.

In the Devils Lake Basin, in north-central North Dakota, planting wont begin, at best, until early or mid-May, says Bill Hodous, Ramsey County extension agent.

Heavy snow cover remains, and time is needed for snow to melt and fields to dry, he says. Substantial late-spring rain or snow could further delay the start of planting until late May, a month later than normal, he says.

A late May start would pressure farmers to plant as quickly as possible, he says.

Farms today are bigger, so they have more acres to cover (in planting). But they have bigger equipment, so they can get over more acres, he says.

In contrast to much of the rest of North Dakota, the southwest part of the state received virtually no snow this winter and is extremely dry.

Any and all moisture would be welcome, says Duaine Marxen, extension agent in southwest North Dakotas Hettinger County.

One of the big questions in area agriculture is whether delayed planting will cause farmers to plant less corn.

High corn prices make the crop attractive. The late March annual planting intentions report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predicts that farmers in North Dakota and Minnesota will plant more corn this spring.

Planting corn later than normal, however, increases the risk that it will be hurt by fall frost. Corns rising popularity in northwest North Dakota may be slowed, but not stopped, if the spring remains wet, Woodbury says.

Hodous says farmers in the Devils Lake area definitely want to plant more corn. A late spring would cut into an acreage increase, but its unclear how many fields would be switched from corn to another crop, he says.

Typically, soybeans, which can be planted relatively late, pick up acres in an unusually late spring.

Hodous says crops such as canola and small grains, which are popular in the Devils Lake area, could pick up acres if spring comes late. Unless fields stay wet well into June, most crops can be planted safely, says Jochum Wiersma, small grain specialist at the University of Minnesota in Crookston.

We can still plant. The concern is that yields, potentially, can be much lower, he says.

Minnesota farmers, on average, expect to begin full-scale field work on April 26.

That would be two weeks later than last year, but only five days later than normal. To put the difference between 2012 and 2013 in better perspective, consider this:

This year, many fields in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota still have at least some snow cover.

Last year, when spring came unusually early, some farmers in that area contacted Wiersma in late March to ask if it was safe to begin planting wheat.

They kept asking, Can we go? Can we go? he recalls. Planting wont be as early or simple this year, he says.

The second half of April is expected to bring above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures on the Northern Plains, according to the National Weather Services Climate Prediction Center.

The center doesnt have much of a handle on what might happen with moisture in May and June. It predicts an equal chance of above-normal, normal and below-normal precipitation across the Northern Plains.

Drought is expected to improve in Minnesota. Some improvement is expected in most of the drought-stricken areas of North Dakota and South Dakota. Drought is projected to persist or intensify in southwest South Dakota and southern Montana.

Much of central South Dakota is exceptionally dry, the worst of four drought categories identified by the Drought Monitor.

One measure of how dry central South Dakota is: the area is the heart of the states winter wheat production, and 75 percent of South Dakota winter wheat is in poor or very poor condition, according to NASS.

Some fields in the area have cracks in the soil, says Beck, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm manager. If you have large cracks in the spring, its not a good deal. Theres a fairly large area of that.

He points out that many farmers elsewhere on the Northern Plains are struggling with heavy snow cover, excess moisture and the possibility of a late spring. Those farmers should be happy. It beats the alternative, he says.