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The Many Tales of 2020 Spring Wheat Planting, or Lack Thereof

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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Tim Dufault of Crookston, Minnesota, has his planter all cleaned up but has nowhere to go, as fields were not yet ready for spring wheat planting as of April 29. (Photo by Tim Dufault)

In its weekly Crop Progress report on Monday, April 27, USDA NASS reported the average planted spring wheat acres at 14% for the week ended Sunday, April 26, versus the five-year average of 29%. South Dakota was at 36% versus their five-year average of 51%, North Dakota was at 5% versus their average of 18% and Minnesota was at 6% versus their average of 30%.

Tim Dufault, a farmer from Crookston, Minnesota, told me midweek: "It's April 29 and basically no fieldwork yet in northwest Minnesota. We have not had a 70-degree day yet, and there is still some snow in the shelterbelts thanks to the 6-12 inches we got the first week of April. We are coming into spring with our backs against the wall. The area was very wet last fall and thus too wet for fall tillage. A lot of corn was harvested in February and March."

He told me he is hoping things can get going the first week of May. "That is about 10 days behind normal. West-central Minnesota and the very northern end of the Red River Valley have had some fieldwork in the last few days," said Dufault.

Dufault contacted me again on Friday, May 1, and told me a handful of farmers had started some seeding of spring wheat. "I was able to start seeding on Thursday on a field that was tiled," said Dufault. "Friday afternoon, showers moved throughout the northern Red River Valley, shutting down fieldwork, but the weekend forecast was dry."

Matthew Krueger, who farms in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, told me on April 30: "We are still so wet from last fall. We have a couple fields that maybe by May 2 we might be able to do something on, but it depends on weather. Next few days look beautiful!"

Danny Pinske, manager of Pro-Ag Farmers' Cooperative in Hoffman, Minnesota, told me: "There is not much wheat in this area -- about 6,000 acres. Most farmers are done planting wheat, and it went well and was timely seeded. We know there is a little more wheat than last year in our trade territory."

SOUTH DAKOTA SPRING WHEAT PLANTING BETTER THAN LAST YEAR IN MANY COUNTIES

Ryan Wagner, a farmer in Roslyn, South Dakota, told me on April 29 that they were off to a slow start there. "We have been able to get some NH3 down, but even that was marginal at best. Wheat stubble is working better than the soybean stubble, which is unusual, but that's due to the deeper frost, which is just now finally starting to come out," said Wagner. "We have only seeded wheat for about two hours total on two separate occasions to figure out conditions were not fit yet with all the soft spots. Even though we had a fairly mild winter, all the rain last year is catching up with us. There are other areas in South Dakota which have had much better luck getting fieldwork done, and I do think spring wheat acres will be up in those areas."

Tregg Cronin, who farms in Gettysburg, South Dakota, told me on April 29 that he started spring wheat planting on his farm in Gettysburg on April 10, which was followed by a several-day break before things really got underway. "Seeding occurred pretty much without stopping and wrapped up on April 26. A year ago, we began seeding spring wheat on April 25, which shows you how much better this year has already been in our area," said Cronin.

"Most producers have finished seeding with the final 15%-20% still fighting wet fields. To the north and east of us, progress has been much slower with some producers in the Aberdeen and Fargo area not having started yet. Acres have been pretty much what we intended before the year began, but overall, I would say a few more acres are in central South Dakota instead of corn, given current economics. No wheat out of the ground yet, but should be poking through in the next several days," added Cronin.

Jerry Cope, who does the grain marketing for Dakota Mill and Grain Inc. in Rapid City, South Dakota, told me on April 29: "We noticed USDA had South Dakota spring wheat at 36% planted as of April 26, but we are 90% done or more in our trade area. Acres are up more than anticipated and I attribute that to good planting conditions combined with the collapse of corn prices. We do have some outliers in western SD that will be up in corn acres, but overall we are seeing an expected decrease. Our increase in acres ranges from 5% to 75% year over year would ballpark the average at a 40% increase."

Cope said that their subsoil is still above average, and they had two snowstorms that have slowed some planting. "However, some of our bigger acre increases out west were in before either of those two snows. Southwest South Dakota is not the prime spring wheat area, but nevertheless, we are higher.

"Spring work is going hard and we have not noticed any drop-off in agronomy products sales or application. After the slow start last year, the weather-based indecision and now COVID-19, our customers appear glad to be able to focus on something positive. Other grains are going in where the ground is ready, and that includes soybeans, milo and corn. Primarily sunflowers followed by spring wheat, milo, soybeans and millet will all take up the slack left by the decrease in corn acres," added Cope.

Tim Luken, manager Oahe Grain in Onida, South Dakota, told me on April 28 that they were pretty much wrapping up spring wheat planting in central South Dakota, and corn planters were out and about. "We actually have not had much for moisture since the first part of April," said Luken. "Conditions where touch and go for a bit at the start, and a half-inch of rain wouldn't hurt a thing as of today. The hills are kind of dry, but lower spots very wet, so a mixed bag of soil conditions in the same field.

"I do believe since the corn market basically is flushed down the toilet, there is more spring wheat in this area planted being conditions were good to go. The few winter wheat fields that are in the area look very good, with no winterkill issues whatsoever," said Luken. "Some producers are staying in their same rotation and some are changing. We won't know the true story until we get to the end of this year. Three years ago, we had a drought; two years ago, a hail event caused a loss of 30% of our county; and last year, we had enough rain to float Noah's Ark. This year, we have COVID-19 and an economy that is in the tank. What Next?!"

The North Dakota Wheat Commission noted the following in their weekly crop progress update: "Producers in North Dakota are slowly but surely getting into fields to plant the 2020 hard red spring wheat and durum crops. Temperatures finally started warming up last week, raising soil temperatures, but many producers are still dealing with overly wet field conditions and unharvested crop that is still in the field from last year. If the current weather trends hold, producers are hopeful that additional progress will be made in the next week."

A shuttle loader in northeast North Dakota told me on April 28 that his area has not started, but it's looking like the weekend for a good start.

"Lot of fields shaping up nicely, and a few beets will go in late this week. We were expecting a few more acres of spring wheat and double-digit gains in soybean acres. Due to prices and the ethanol outlook, farmers took some corn seed back a couple weeks ago, and thoughts are changes to wheat and beans."

He said that all the standing unharvested corn acres in his area will likely be prevented planting (PP) -- about 10% of what was planted last year -- and there may be some additional acreage on top of that. He said it's too early to put a number yet on how much more will be PP acres, but it could be higher than anyone is expecting.

Keith Brandt, general manager of Plains Grain and Agronomy LLC in Enderlin, North Dakota, told me April 28 that they are still harvesting 2019 corn, with 8% to 10% of 2019 crop left to harvest. "Field conditions have improved, but the township roads have turned into sponges with the frost not out. A half-inch of rain would improve them," said Brandt.

"We have fertilizer spreading, spring wheat seeding, peas and corn starting to be planted and even some soybeans in the ground -- enough to say we have started," said Brandt. "Field conditions have gotten better, but if this frost would come out, we would be going stronger. We have very adequate topsoil moisture, excess subsoil moisture and spots that you might expect to be wet are drying up nicely, but then other spots don't seem to change."

Brandt said he is very concerned about how much prevented planting they will have this year and thinks it could be 15% to 20%. Soybean fields that were rutted up last fall while harvesting and cornfields that were not worked last fall (50% of North Dakota's corn was unharvested at Christmas) will be candidates for PP. "A lot of planting decisions will be made this year when the field gets fit to be worked," said Brandt. "Still expecting wheat acres to be down, corn acres down from USDA's March intentions report, soybean acres up and a big increase in sunflowers in the western half of the state, with an increase in all specialty crops, hoping they hit on something."

Kerry Baldwin, who farms in Hope, North Dakota, told me on April 28 that there was no fieldwork going on in his area. "It is still really wet. I do hear rumors of more people switching from corn to wheat, mainly because $2.70 corn doesn't turn a profit under normal yields, but neither does wheat."

Brian Kenner, a farmer and seed producer in central North Dakota, told me on April 28: "We have not started yet. Put on a little fertilizer but quit because it was too wet. Frost is coming out strangely this spring, and I'm guessing it's on account of excess fall moisture. I think spring wheat acres will be higher. Our seed sales are strong for wheat this year. I believe most of the additional acres are coming at the expense of corn. We will be 10 days to two weeks behind last year's start date. I'm a firm believer that when we start planting wheat in May, we are taking 10%-15% off our top yield potential."

Mark Rohrich, a farmer in Ashley, North Dakota, told me on April 28 that he had heard of guys starting to plant outside of his immediate area, but most in his area have not started. "Hopefully, this rain takes the frost away, but it will be wet no matter what because of last fall precipitation. If we could get going, there could be a few more acres in wheat than planned corn or it would be lots of soybeans," said Rohrich.

"The timetable will determine a lot considering no fertilizer is out there. The other challenge is deteriorated township or gravel roads. There are frost heaves, soft spots and closed roads, which will make logistics tough. It definitely makes soybeans the easiest crop to only get the seed to the field in most cases. Going to be an interesting spring without a doubt," added Rohrich.

Allan Klain, who farms northwest of Turtle Lake, North Dakota, said: "I think, in our area, wheat acres will be steady to maybe a slight increase. East of us it is only a week of rain away from prevented planting. They need warm and windy weather to have a chance of getting the crop in."

Matt Undlin, a farmer from Lansford, North Dakota, told me he typically raises 1,000 acres of spring wheat for seed production, but this year, he's only raising 200. "There is not a lot of wheat going in here. We're seeing more barley, oats, canola, peas, flax and beans, and less corn and wheat in North Dakota," said Undlin. "I haven't started planting yet. We thought it was going to be an early spring, but it just won't warm up. I am starting barley May 3 and [will] hopefully get a canola field done before Monday's rain. This is late here compared to the last 10 years, but morale isn't great, honestly. Prices suck and COVID-19 restrictions have really put farmers in a bad place, and it is hard to get excited to push it."

"We still have snow in the trees and coulees, corn headlands," Peter Ness said on April 28. Ness, who farms in Sharon, North Dakota, said: "The frost is just coming out, and the fields are getting wetter it seems. Not an acre of tillage was done last fall and it's a swamp now. A random 80 around the area is fit, but it'll be two weeks or more before we're good to go. My rotation will stay about the same. Pray for dry weather."

SLOW GOING IN MONTANA

Spring wheat planting in Montana as of April 26 was reported at 11% complete, which is behind the five-year average of 31%. In 2019, spring wheat and durum harvest was late, with durum harvest almost finished by Nov. 17, well behind the normal progress. Spring wheat harvest was reported as nearly completed in late October, but for some farmers, it never was finished.

A farmer I spoke to in northeastern Montana told me that he had about 1,400 acres of spring wheat not harvested as of April 28. He said that the 70,000 bushels of spring wheat he lost was the best wheat he had grown in 47 years. "These acres will not be planted this year, and I still need to fallow just to clean up the ground, and it is very wet. In areas I can seed, I have left ruts while seeding, and water appears by morning."

He said he is still waiting to hear from FSA on the WHIP program, for which he said he is eligible. The FSA Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP) provides disaster payments to producers to offset losses from hurricanes, wildfires and other qualifying natural disasters that occurred in the 2018 and 2019 calendar years.

He told me there is seeding going on in his area with some yellow peas, lentils and chickpeas, but everything else will be spring wheat.

Once again, spring wheat planting season is reliant on Mother Nature, while many farmers are still dealing with the mess left behind last fall. Wet fields are expected to get even wetter in the next few days. The DTN forecast calls for moderate rainfall in the eastern Northern Plains Monday night, causing fieldwork and planting delays. Another system will bring moderate rain chances Thursday and cold air Friday through the weekend. Temperatures may dip below freezing.

Tim Dufault summed up his feelings about the planting delays, saying, "It looks like spring decided to social distance also."

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn

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