Despite the double whammy of a soaked spring and parched summer, Minnesota farmers are likely to pull off a reasonable crop this year.
The corn harvest could be a winner on par with last year’s, though results will vary, particularly in southeastern Minnesota, which never recovered from a punishing May snowfall that nixed a lot of planting.
“The corn yield looks like it will be close to last year, but there will be a lot of variation,” said David Nicolai, a University of Minnesota Extension crop educator in Farmington. “It will be a case where average yields look good, but county by county, field by field, this will be a year of variability.”
As for soybeans, Minnesota’s second-largest crop after corn, a particularly arid August is likely to put a dent in farmers’ haul.
Fall is here and the harvest of corn and soybeans is just around the corner. Minnesota is among the nation’s top five producers of both corn and soybeans, and the health of both crops is important to rural economies through much of the state.
Many Minnesota farmers started the year on an ominous note as wet, cold weather delayed planting. By May 1, virtually no corn was in the ground, though farmers by then normally would have at least a third of their crop seeded. Southeastern counties — Mower, Freeborn, Dodge, Steele, Olmsted — were worst hit, federal crop insurance data show.
The snow was on the ground so long that many farmers never got their whole crop in. “We are roughly half planted,” Dan Erickson, a farmer in Alden west of Albert Lea, said of his corn crop. “My dad [who is also a farmer] said he’s never seen anything like it in 45 years.”
Erickson said the situation is similar in other southeastern counties he covers as a regional representative for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Federal crop insurance will cover part of the farmers’ weather-related losses. And Erickson said that at least some of the corn he and others actually planted looks good right now.
The ugly spring had a silver lining for much of the state, with precipitation rehydrating soil that had been badly depleted from last year’s drought — soil that would be tested again this summer. “The bulk of the state’s agricultural ground is in at least moderate drought,” said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
As of Tuesday, 71 percent of the state — including nonfarm land — was moderately dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website, while 52 percent was in moderate drought and 8 percent in severe drought. Last weekend’s rain helped a bit, Drought Monitor shows.
Still, for a good swath of the soybean crop, rain now comes too late. “There’s an old saying, August rains make the soybean crop,” Nicolai said.
But they didn’t come, for the most part, forcing some soybean fields to mature early, before their seeds and pods were fully developed.
When soybean plants turn yellow, they’ve matured. “I’ve got some fields that are 75 percent to 80 percent yellow,” said Tom Haag, a farmer near Eden Valley whose farm sits in a severe drought zone in central Minnesota. “Once they start turning yellow, they’re done.”
Government forecasts are indeed calling for a sparser soybean crop in Minnesota. Soybean yields are forecast to be 39 bushels per acre, down 10 percent from 2012, according to the most recent forecast by the United States Department of Agriculture. That expected yield shortfall essentially doubled from a forecast made a month earlier on Aug. 1.
The arid summer hasn’t generally had the same effect on corn, according to the USDA. Corn yields in Minnesota are expected to be 166 bushels per acre, up 1 bushel from a year ago.
“Corn will be all right — about the same or a little better yields,” said Gene Stoel, a farmer in Lake Wilson in southwestern Minnesota. “There are some bad spots, but there’s a lot of good-looking corn.”
One factor has changed significantly for corn growers from a year ago: They look like they will fetch lower prices.
While Minnesota escaped the worst of last year’s drought, much of the U.S. corn belt’s crop was toasted. So, Minnesota farmers prospered as corn prices in 2012 climbed to more than $7 per bushel. But this year, the overall U.S. corn outlook is much improved: The USDA expects a record crop, with production up 28 percent over 2012.
In response, corn futures are trading at just more than $4.50 a bushel.
Farmers face one more issue this year: Late planting means the harvest could come closer to a killing frost. But here again, adverse weather has had a silver lining. The oppressive heat of late August accelerated maturation of corn and soybeans, even if beans didn’t get the water they needed.
So, there doesn’t seem to a raft of worries. Said Liz Stahl, a U of M Extension crop educator in Worthington, “I think most of our crop will make it before a killing frost.”