Field work: Will it start early? Late

FARGO, N.D. -- Some farmers are still waist-deep in snow, but they're thinking about spring, when they'll inevitably go from scratching their heads to scratching in the ground. If past is any prologue, planting is only about a month away.

FARGO, N.D. -- Some farmers are still waist-deep in snow, but they're thinking about spring, when they'll inevitably go from scratching their heads to scratching in the ground. If past is any prologue, planting is only about a month away.

The 20-year average through 2010 for the start of spring wheat planting is March 31 in South Dakota, April 6 in Montana, April 14 in Minnesota and April 16 in North Dakota, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Soybean planting typically starts on May 2 in Minnesota, May 7 in North Dakota and May 8 in South Dakota. Corn planting traditionally starts April 22 in Minnesota, and April 26 in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

In early March, farmers can only wonder whether they'll have a late planting year similar to 2011, or an unusually early one similar to 2012.

USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service state office in North Dakota pegged the average start of fieldwork at April 3 in 2012. That compares with May 7 in 2011, April 18 in 2010, May 2 in 2009. The average start ranged from April 15 to April 21 in the previous six years. NASS reported that 17 percent of North Dakota's spring wheat was planted by April 8 (3 percent was already emerged) and that some potatoes, dry edible peas, barley, oats and canola already were planted.


Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist in Fargo, says federal weather predictions so far call for a warmer-than-normal March, April and May in the southeast corner of North Dakota. Forecast models have "no skill" for predicting precipitation levels in those months, he says. Generally, federal forecasts say drought-struck states such as Nebraska will continue to have above-normal temperatures, likely prolonging the drought, Akyuz says, while other areas of the Corn Belt are expected to see some relief.

Relief with moisture

"I think the best thing is that we've got moisture coming back up through the area," says Carroll Duerr, manager of Colfax (N.D.) Farmers Elevator Inc., in northern Richland County. By this time, farmers have a vision about how things will play out -- somewhat of a script that could involve plenty of tweaks and improvisation, depending on the season, Duerr says.

Crop rotations are pretty well set. "If it's an earlier spring, if they can get in early, they'll maybe tweak things and have a chance to plant more corn," Duerr says. "Typically, for us, if we can drive tractors and be stirring around on April 20, that's what we're hoping for."

Among the trends in southeast North Dakota is a continuous loss of wheat acres in recent years.

That's one factor driving another increase in non-genetically modified (GMO) soybean acres, says one expert.

Scott Sinner, partner and procurement manager for SB&B Foods of Casselton, N.D., says his company will see another increase of perhaps 4 percent in acres of conventional soybeans for the human food market. The company has completed contracts for certain varieties. The company's contracting for non-GMO soybean markets have grown 20-fold in the past 10 years and doubled in the past three. The company has processing plants in Casselton and north of Eau Claire, Wis.

Hard figures are difficult to come by, but Sinner says industry officials seem to acknowledge that non-GMO soybeans probably account for 8 to 10 percent of total soybean acres.


Non-GMOs and growing

This year, SB&B has been promoting the advantages of non-GMO beans for farmers looking to diversify their weed protection chemistry in the wake of weed resistance to glyphosate herbicide.

"It's getting to be a big deal," Sinner says, of herbicide resistance. "It kind of all started with Roundup Ready sugar beets. Now that there's not a lot of wheat being grown around here, it's Roundup, Roundup, Roundup, on all of their crops. Some farmers are being proactive to make sure resistance doesn't become a big issue."

Sinner says that while his company promotes the non-GMO soybean as a rotation option to help with weed resistance, it isn't a panacea. The non-GMO beans could help "slow down that curve," toward resistance, and he hopes science will come up with new answers.

Sinner says he's talked to GMO farmers who tell him their chemical bill is $35 to $38 an acre. His farm has an average bill of $42 an acre for weed control, he says, but there is also a premium for growing non-GMO. SB&B contracts at a basis premium above the Chicago Board of Trade level. Typical premiums can range from 25 cents to $4 a bushel, depending on a variety's end use and its perceived agronomic disadvantages.

In 2012, an early planting season and good crop meant that SB&B filled its orders and didn't buy more. "We're not speculating this market," Sinner says. "We don't just buy, and buy and buy. The moral of the story is to contract. If you contract, you know your beans are going to be sold. Plus, it makes you eligible for food grade crop revenue insurance."

Copyright 2013, Agweek.

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