Despite a winter that never seemed to end, Minnesota farmers are going into Memorial Day weekend with a good percentage of their crop planted — a better outcome than feared a month ago.
Planted acreage is still below historical average, and this spring's late start could yet reduce yields, particularly of corn. But a U.S. Department of Agriculture report shows that 70 percent of Minnesota's corn crop had been planted by May 19, a huge increase from only 18 percent on May 12, though still behind the five-year average of 84 percent.
The rest of the nation's Corn Belt — also hammered by weather-induced late planting — made similar strides during the week ending May 19. Illinois corn farmers had 74 percent of their crop planted by May 19, compared with 17 percent a week earlier. In Iowa, 71 percent of the corn crop was in on May 19, up from 15 percent on the 12th.
"Planting is behind schedule, but much less than in prior weeks," Cowen Securities analyst Charles Neivert wrote in a research report this week. "We continue to believe that farmers should be able to make up a substantial portion of lost time."
Like much of the Corn Belt, Minnesota suffered through a brutal spring. By May 1, hardly a corn seed was planted in Minnesota, yet April 25 through May 1 is the sweet spot for planting corn in much of the state. And corn planted in May's second half — the later, the worse — is inherently more susceptible to decreases in bushels harvested per acre.
John Mages, a farmer near Belgrade in central Minnesota, finished planting corn on May 16. "I think we'll pay just a little [yield] penalty. We're probably just a week later than we'd like it."
May's weather has been spotty, with cold and rain plaguing a good part of the state this week. But farmers have also been granted windows of warm, dry weather this month.
"When you get an open window of four or five days, you can get a lot of work done," Mages said by phone — from his tractor — as he planted soybeans Friday.
That's partly due to technological advances in farming. Tractors are speedier, and equipped with GPS, which allows for longer planting hours and reduces farmer fatigue. Mechanical planters are bigger, too, allowing farmers with more up-to-date equipment to work 18 rows at a time, instead of 12. "You can definitely cover a lot of ground," Mages said.
Despite the mid-May planting turnaround, some farmers are still uncomfortably behind where they'd like to be.
Jerry Demmer farms near Clarks Grove in southern Minnesota, an area hit particularly hard by one of May's snow blasts.
"We're in that band where the soils are wet," he said. "We didn't have much time to get in [to the fields]."
Demmer said about 70 percent of his corn is in the ground, and he hasn't even started his soybeans yet. He's hoping the weather will be dry enough to finish his corn crop quickly, as the yield clock is ticking.
"That's the 64-dollar question on corn," he said. "Can we get it in by the 31st of May?"
Minnesota wheat farmers also made great progress in planting from May 12 to May 19. The state's spring wheat crop was 71 percent planted on May 19, up from 19 percent a week earlier, though still below the five-year average of 80 percent, according to USDA data. Trends were similar for barley and oats.
And after a slow start, the bulk of the state's sugar beet crop has been planted.