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Farmers early in the fields to prep for spring

Gregg Malm spreads manure on a corn stubble field southeast of Park Rapids in preparation for spring planting. With dry fields and current weather conditions, field work will increase as area farmers are likely to be planting in the next couple weeks. (Kevin Cederstrom / Enterprise)

By KEVIN CEDERSTROM

kcederstrom@

parkrapidsenterprise.com

The fields are dry enough to move machinery as area farmers are out working dirt in preparation for spring planting.

Low moisture this winter and not much too show for as far as precipitation yet heading into this spring has farmers getting started on fieldwork, disking and spreading fertilizer now.

Below average moisture in the ground could be cause for concern if the spring rains don’t come.

“We’ve seen some guys disking but that’s about it so far. Reports are there is still frost in the ground,” said Mike Stevens of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Wadena.

“The main thing we’re seeing right now is the lack of moisture and that could be really tough later.”

Stevens said on average this area is in about 1.5 inch moisture deficit already this spring. Generally, farms are planting mid to late April.

Charles Malm farms with his sons a few miles southeast of Park Rapids and he expects they will be chopping corn stalks and disking by Monday. Gregg Malm was out fertilizing fields with manure on Thursday, or as Charles put it, “relocating farm residue.”

The Malms expect to plant corn and small grains the next couple weeks. Gregg Malm said the fields are pretty dry right now but there is still enough moisture in the ground for planting.

Charles said he is concerned about the alfalfa and winter kill since there was so little snow for cover. They planted about 250 acres of alfalfa last year and usually get about three cuttings each year to feed cattle.

The Malms milk 50 dairy cows right now and have about 30 heifers, Charles said. They farm about 800 acres of corn, small grains and alfalfa and use four irrigators with the rest dry land.

It’s a common refrain in Upper Midwest agriculture, which, for the fourth straight year, faces another strange spring. Abnormal, it seems, is the new normal.

The moisture-light winter and warm March weather should allow many area farmers to get an early start on spring field work. That would be a mostly good thing — early planted crops usually, though not always, fare better than late-planted ones.

But planting too soon would increase the risk of frost damage to young, emerging plants.

A warm, dry and early spring would increase the need for timely rains later in the growing season. Upper Midwest crops, especially nonirrigated ones, always require precipitation at key points in their growth. But a dry spring would reduce available subsoil moisture, making timely rains more important than ever.

Most of Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas already are “abnormally dry,” with patches of “moderate drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of academic and federal government scientists.

What’s clear, though, is that early signals point to a potential repeat of 2012, “arguably our earliest spring season ever,” says Mark Seeley, Minnesota Extension climatologist.

As he notes, that year’s early start was followed by an exceptionally cool, wet and late spring in 2013 and 2014 “that really pushed them (farmers) back on their heels,” both in planting and subsequent weed control, Seeley says.

What’s normal?

Edwards says she hears “all the time” from farmers and others who claim the region’s weather has turned abnormal.

Seeley says “that perception is definitely there.”

But they and other weather experts have a different take.

Fluctuations in weather are inevitable, and the so-called normal is actually an average of those variations, experts say.

“In a climate sense, it would be abnormal to be normal,” Edwards says. “The average is just a statistic, it’s not reality.”

Generalizations about the sprawling Upper Midwest, which ranges from the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota to the wheat-dominated fields of central Montana, are always risky.

But USDA 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.

Late-planted wheat can produce good crops; record-setting yields after the wet, late spring of 2013 and 2014 prove that. But the crop, a cool-season grass, generally fares best when it’s planted early, allowing it to avoid most mid-summer heat.

Corn and soybeans, in turn, generally do best when planted early enough to minimize risk of early fall frost.

An unusually late first frost in the fall of 2013 allowed corn and beans to overcome late planting that spring. But late-planted 2014 crops were hurt by frost — again accentuating the importance of early planting.

“The earlier you can plant, the better,” Edwards says.

(Jonathan Knutson, an agriculture reporter with Forum News Service, contributed to this story.)

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