Nobody is welcoming this weekend’s warm-up more than Minnesota’s farmers.
Brutal weather statewide has pushed back planting dates. Virtually no corn is in the ground, even though farmers aim to be deep in dirt by now. The window for planting crops early enough for a good harvest is narrowing, and farmers are getting antsy.
Still, it’s not panic time. And the snow and rain that have blackened many a Minnesotan’s mood this spring have had a silver lining. The precipitation provided badly needed moisture for the state’s parched soil. For the first time since August, none of Minnesota is suffering from extreme drought.
“I’m happy to be where we are at with soil moisture,” said Jerry Demmer, a corn and soybean farmer in Clarks Grove, near Albert Lea.
A pond on his farm is at normal levels — a good sign. And Demmer, who’s been farming for 42 years, plans to be planting early this week. “Everything is ready to roll, just waiting to get into the field,” he said. “I’m excited to get going — that’s the farmer in me. Every year is different. It’s like a kid with a new toy at Christmas.”
As for worries about late planting, “there’s no red flags yet,” he said.
Continued weather like this weekend’s will do wonders in farm country. Still, the state will see a colder, wetter weather pattern by midweek, National Weather Service meteorologist Lisa Schmit said Friday. It’s not expected to serve up a rain dump, but “it could hinder things a bit” for farmers, she said.
On average over the past 10 years, 34 percent of the state’s corn crop would have been planted by Friday, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s St. Paul office. Statistics for last week won’t be released until Monday, but the number could be close to zero.
It’s the same story with every crop. On average over the past 10 years, 41 percent of the state’s spring wheat crop had been planted.
But as of Thursday, there was still snow covering much of the state’s northwest wheat belt, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Indeed, there was snowcover in much of Minnesota north of St. Cloud.
Tom Haag, a corn and soybean farmer in Eden Valley, about 35 miles southwest of St. Cloud, said he still had patches of snow in his fields last week. “This is the first day we can be outside in a T-shirt,” he said Friday.
This weekend’s warmth should erase the remaining snow, and planting isn’t far behind. “If Mother Nature cooperates, we will be getting in [the fields] by the 8th or 9th in my area,” Haag said.
His goal, however, is to be doing field work around April 23.
“April 25 to May 1 is the sweet spot for corn [planting],” said David Nicolai, a University of Minnesota Extension crop educator in Farmington.
Still, corn farmers aren’t at risk for a “yield penalty” until mid-May, he said. As long as corn is planted in May’s first half, the growing season shouldn’t be too short to significantly bite into yields at harvest time.
“From mid-May to the end of May, there is a rapid decline in corn yields,” Nicolai said, referring to planting dates. Corn is the state’s biggest crop, and Minnesota is among the nation’s top five corn producers.
Soybeans are the state’s second largest crop, and they can planted throughout May without fear of lower yields from a shortened growing season. Spring wheat is No. 3, and wheat growers might already have reason to worry.
So-called “small grains” like wheat, barley and oats are cool-weather crops. The later the planting date, the more susceptible small grains are to the heat of high summer. Hot weather essentially speeds small grains through their development stages, cutting yields in the process.
Talk among some spring wheat growers is a planting date of around May 10, assuming good weather, said Dave Torgerson, head of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers. “If they can get in the ground by that time, they will be fine.”
Still, Torgerson said the late start is a strike against this year’s spring wheat crop. “The odds are that we won’t have as good of yields because we are getting in so late.”
The good news is that April’s showers — snow and rain — were largely absorbed in the state’s south, prime corn and soybean country. The precipitation has helped in the north, too, though frost is still prevalent there.
As of Thursday, no part of Minnesota was in “extreme drought,” compared with 20 percent at the beginning of April and 25 percent at the beginning of March, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website.
“Severe drought” conditions were present in only 17 percent of the state Thursday compared with 67 percent at April’s start.
This spring’s precipitation has helped compensate for the lack of rain after last year’s harvest, before the ground froze, said DNR climatologist Pete Boulay.
Soil moisture levels are still lower than what’s optimal. But, Boulay said, “there’s been a huge rebound since the fall.”