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Farmers hoping for rain

Farmers are starting to prepare fields for planting throughout Wadena County.

Farmers are preparing fields for planting over the next few weeks and keeping their fingers crossed that rain is in the forecast.

Little snow cover over the winter has created a particularly dry spring and caused some of the forage crops to freeze.

“We’re hoping for rain to get going here otherwise we’ll be hurting pretty badly,” said Mike Stevens, executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Wadena.

The dryness might delay some planting.

“Some farmers are saying that there is some subsoil moisture leftover from last year but that can get quickly used up,” he added. “Looks like a lot of manure is being spread out there so that’s a sign that they’re gearing up to start planting.”

On Monday, Stevens heard from farmers who reported some of their alfalfa froze during the winter because it didn’t have any snow cover. They will have to seed again, he said.

“They’re just discovering that now so I’m afraid that a lot of our forage crops are going to need to be replanted here this spring,” Stevens said.

Corn, potatoes and soybeans haven’t been planted yet but should be starting within the next week. Some frost remains when people pull out fence posts but it should be gone soon.

“They have been able to get small grains in the field - oats and spring wheat. Roughly a quarter of that is planted in Wadena,” Stevens said.

Recent winds eat up the moisture a lot more quickly, he added, so that hasn’t helped the farming situation.

“If they’re putting in anhydrous or any chemicals there’s always the chance that more will be lost in the atmosphere than in the ground,” he said.

The moisture-light winter and warm March weather should allow many area farmers to get an early start on spring field work. That would be a mostly good thing — early planted crops usually, though not always, fare better than late-planted ones.

But planting too soon would increase the risk of frost damage to young, emerging plants.

A warm, dry and early spring would increase the need for timely rains later in the growing season. Upper Midwest crops, especially nonirrigated ones, always require precipitation at key points in their growth. But a dry spring would reduce available subsoil moisture, making timely rains more important than ever.

Most of Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas already are “abnormally dry,” with patches of “moderate drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of academic and federal government scientists.

What’s clear, though, is that early signals point to a potential repeat of 2012, “arguably our earliest spring season ever,” says Mark Seeley, Minnesota Extension climatologist.

As he notes, that year’s early start was followed by an exceptionally cool, wet and late spring in 2013 and 2014 “that really pushed them (farmers) back on their heels,” both in planting and subsequent weed control, Seeley says.

What’s normal?

Seeley says “that perception is definitely there.”

But they and other weather experts have a different take.

Fluctuations in weather are inevitable, and the so-called normal is actually an average of those variations, experts say.

Generalizations about the sprawling Upper Midwest, which ranges from the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota to the wheat-dominated fields of central Montana, are always risky.

But USDA says the following generally is true for wheat, corn and soybeans, the region’s three major crops:

  • Wheat: Planting usually begins in early or mid-April, with the most active planting period in late April and the first three weeks of May.

  • Soybeans: Planting usually begins in early May, with the most active planting period the final three weeks of May and the first week of June.

  • Corn: Planting usually begins in late April, with the most active planting period in May.

Late-planted wheat can produce good crops; record-setting yields after the wet, late spring of 2013 and 2014 prove that. But the crop, a cool-season grass, generally fares best when it’s planted early, allowing it to avoid most mid-summer heat.

Corn and soybeans, in turn, generally do best when planted early enough to minimize risk of early fall frost.

An unusually late first frost in the fall of 2013 allowed corn and beans to overcome late planting that spring. But late-planted 2014 crops were hurt by frost — again accentuating the importance of early planting.

(Jonathan Knutson, an agriculture reporter with Forum News Service, contributed to this story.)

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561
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