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As planting slowly starts, some area farmers want to avoid repeat of wet 2013

LANGDON, N.D. — If you ask farmers in the Langdon, N.D., area, about 2013 planting,  you’ll usually get a shrug and a pained expression.

“I’ve tried to put that from my memory,” says Kevin Waslaski, who farms in the Langdon area. When pressed a little, though, he and other Langdon farmers talk about a late-arriving spring followed by frequent rainy stretches that kept their fields a muddy mess into late June.

What happened in Langdon, in northeast North Dakota, reflects the recent roller-coaster ride of spring planting in the region.

Last year, most of the Upper Midwest, particularly northern North Dakota farm towns such as Langdon, suffered through a cold, wet spring that pushed back planting dangerously late and kept many fields from being planted.

Two years ago, Langdon farmers, like most of their peers in the Upper Midwest, enjoyed one of their earliest planting starts and smoothest planting seasons in memory.

This spring is shaping up somewhere between those extremes. Planting certainly won’t start as early and probably won’t go as smoothly as it did two years ago. But unless the weather turns wet and cold for an extended period, planting won’t bring the same time concerns of 2013.

As things stand now, many area farmers will start planting at least a week or two later than they’d like.

The soil in many fields needs more time to warm up after the long, cold winter, and late March/early April storms left heavy snows in some areas that needed to melt.

“The soils need drying up and warming up,” says Joel Ransom, small grains and corn agronomist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s not deadly late, either,” he says of the planting outlook.

Crops usually, but not always, fare better when they’re planted early. Wheat and other small grains benefit because they avoid late-summer heat that can hurt yields. Corn benefits because there’s less risk from yield- and quality-damaging frost in the fall.

Later-than-ideal planting will expose many crops to more weather risk than farmers prefer.

One positive: spring flooding isn’t expected to be a major problem across the region.

‘Average’ starting times

The Upper Midwest is a big place, and planting varies greatly across it. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture 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.

Ultimately, weather conditions in the second half of April and early May will determine how close to “average” planting comes, farmers and others say.

The early spring

For many area farmers, 2012 will be remembered as the year of the early spring.

Early planting conditions were so favorable that farmers and others in the Langdon area recall checking into what federal crop insurance identifies as “the earliest planting date.”

If farmers plant before that date, they don’t qualify for a replanting payment under federal crop insurance if they need to replant a field because of bad weather. The date varies by crop from state to state and even from county to county, depending on the risk associated with the crop in that state or county.

In contrast, the final planting date is the date by which a crop must initially be planted to be insured for the full production or amount of insurance per acre.

It’s not uncommon for farmers in the Langdon area to be influenced by the final planting date; it happened, in a big way, in 2013.

But farmers and others in the Langdon area can’t remember another year like 2012, when the earliest planting date was an issue.

Spring came so early in 2012 that a majority of the region’s spring wheat was planted by April 22 that year.

South Dakota farmers had planted 91 percent of their spring wheat, Minnesota farmers 84 percent, Montana farmers 49 percent and North Dakota farmers 45 percent.

Each state’s completion rate was far above its five-year average.

The early planting worked out well for most producers in Langdon and elsewhere in the region. Wheat was mature before dry, hot weather struck in July, boosting yields.

The late spring

Spring came late to the Langdon area in 2013. Farmers and others who talked with Agweek say persistent bouts with rain aggravated the late start.

“It would rain and we’d be shut down for a few days. Then just when we were able to get back out (planting) we’d get more rain,” says Keith Lorenz, a Langdon farmer.

Many fields were planted in late June, far later than ideal, and many weren’t planted at all.

Though the late, wet spring was a common problem across the Upper Midwest in 2013, northern North Dakota was hit especially hard.

Cavalier County, home to Langdon, had 249,999 acres of prevented planting and 612,000 planted acres. In other words, 2½ acres out of every 8½ crop acres in the county weren’t planted.

But the 2013 growing season, so uncooperative early, turned favorable later for Cavalier County farmers.

A cool stretch in late July and early August limited late-planted crops’ exposure to damaging mid-summer heat. An unusually warm September also helped, giving late-planted crops more time to reach maturity.

So far this spring

Farmers and others in the Langdon area say they aren’t worried about planting yet. Planting in the area normally doesn’t start in earnest until late April or early May.

When Agweek visited Langdon, fields in the area were generally dry. But big snow banks, especially in shelterbelts and other areas where farm machinery is stored, were a concern.

Higher temperatures also were needed to warm soils after a long, cold winter. Modest amounts of warm rain, which would help take the frost out of soil, would be welcome, too.

There’s no desperation yet, but farmers across the Upper Midwest, on balance, are off to a slow start this spring.

Mid-April figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA,

show that planting regionwide isn’t quite as advanced as normal.

  • North Dakota — No spring wheat planted, compared with the five-year average of 5 percent. No corn had been planted, typical for the middle of April.

  • Minnesota — No spring wheat planted, compared with the five-year average of 13 percent. No corn had been planted, compared with the five-year average of 2 percent.

  • South Dakota — Six percent of spring wheat planted, compared with the five-year average of 22 percent. No corn had been planted, compared with the five-year average of 1 percent.

  • Montana — Three percent of spring wheat planted, compared with the five-year average of 8 percent. Three percent of barley planted, compared with the five-year average of 16 percent.

Tighter margins

Langdon, a farm town of 1,900, is outside the fertile Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

Farmers in the Langdon area grow many crops, including dry beans, flax, sunflowers, oats and barley. Corn, once too risky to grow in northern North Dakota, has made inroads, thanks to faster-maturing varieties.

But spring wheat and canola are the cornerstones of most crop rotations in the Langdon area.

Langdon is particularly known as a canola hotspot. Cavalier County leads the nation in canola production, and farmers from the area often hold leadership posts in regional and national canola associations. Waslaski, for instance, is a past president and current board member of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Canola Association.

Weaker wheat and canola prices will cut into potential profits this year, farmers and others say.

The North Dakota State University Extension Service 2014 Projected Crop Budgets peg canola profitability at $45.01 per acre, down from $71.48 per acre a year ago. Spring wheat profitability is estimated at $34.77 per acre, down from $65.20 per acre in 2013.

High expenses work against profits, too.

“It’s very expensive to put in a crop,” says Dean Aanderud, senior loan officer/branch manager of the AgCountry Farm Credit Service office in Landon.

Farms in the Langdon area still can be profitable this year, but they’ll need good yields, he says.