Farmers prepare to plant, hope for spring rain
As corn and soybean farmers prepare to seed their fields, some face the growing season with concern and hopes that spring will bring more rain.
As everybody in southeastern Minnesota knows, winter and spring have been unusually warm and dry. Counties in our area are experiencing either severe to moderate drought or abnormally dry conditions, according to the Minnesota Climatology Working Group , which is made up of the University of Minnesota and the State Climatology Office. Most of southern Minnesota is experiencing severe drought.
That's a concern for farmers, who need significant rainfall early in the growing season, said Bruce Schmoll, a corn and soybean farmer near Claremont, in Dodge County.
"Since last July, our biggest concern is the dry subsoil," Schmoll said. "We've had no major rainfall, and very little snow this winter, so there's very little absorption from snow melt."
Schmoll and Plainview farmer Mike Zabel have both checked with construction companies that dig holes for home and building foundations and heard the same reports: The ground is very dry below 6 inches.
One thing southeastern Minnesota has going for it is the clay in the subsoil, which does a good job of holding water and could help sustain crops into mid-summer, Schmoll said.
It doesn't seem that the current dry conditions make it possible to predict what will happen this summer, said Fritz Breitenbach in the agriculture division at University of Minnesota Extension. He mentioned a recent exercise by U of M Climatologist Mark Seeley, in which Seeley looked at past spring seasons that were dry and their subsequent summers.
"Half the time, (the summers) got wetter and half the time they stayed dry," Breitenbach said. "So, we really don't know what to tell people."
When to plant
The unusually warm weather this spring might prompt some farmers to plant corn and soybeans early; however, farmers should carefully consider the federal planting dates for crop insurance when making their decisions, Breitenbach said.
In Olmsted County, the planting date for corn is April 11; for soybeans, it's April 21. If farmers plant before those dates and the area experiences a frost, killing their crops, insurance will not cover the cost for replanting, Breitenbach said.
"Now, understand that it may cost $120 an acre to seed a corn crop. So, is that something that you want to do? Not without insurance," he said.
That "input cost," including seed, fertilizer, chemicals and land rent, has been increasing in recent years, which makes some farmers more risk averse.
Most farmers who grow small grains and alfalfa have already planted, as those crops can handle cold conditions. Such is the case for Zabel. As his family business name implies, Zabel Seeds sells seeds, and it grows crops on about 850 acres between Plainview and Elgin.
Planting early is a gamble
Zabel said he's been weighing a number of factors, including the risk of a killing frost, in trying to decide when to start planting corn and soybeans. He said he's sure he'll wait until after the crop insurance dates, but he might plant earlier than he's ever done in the past.
"We don't know what April is going to bring ... the 30-day outlook appears to be in the average to slightly above average in temperatures. It depends on how the weather patterns shape up in the next two weeks," Zabel said.
Schmoll also said he will keep an eye on weather forecasts. Although he knows some farmers will plant early — and both Schmoll and Zabel said they've heard there's corn in the ground already — he plans to hold off until very close to the crop insurance dates.
That's probably the wisest thing to do, Breitenbach said, but he cautioned against waiting too long after the insurance dates.
"When April 11 comes, don't wait," he said. "You look at the long-term forecasts and they are for above greatly higher temperatures for 90 days out."
Last year was challenging for farmers, but Schmoll and Zabel both said they did pretty well overall.
"First we had a cool, damp spring, which led to slow growth," Schmoll said.
However, the dry conditions and heat of mid-summer helped, and he ended up with an average corn yield and a slightly better-than-average soybean yield.
"We were happy with our yields," Zabel said, adding that his corn yields were about average compared to the last couple of years. He said his soybean yields were above average.