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Farmers hook up a full tank of ammonia in a field north of Worthington Tuesday. While limited field work has begun, most farmers are waiting for sustained warm temperatures to start planting. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

Waiting on the weather

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WORTHINGTON -- In a typical year, the region's crop producers would have had their small grains planted by early April, their corn in the ground by the end of April, and their soybeans rolling out of planters and into farm fields by the first week of May.

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This year, however, is certainly not typical. Getting half a foot of snow on May Day is far from typical.

Rural Hills farmer Gene Sandager is among many farmers itching to get into the fields and get the crops planted.

There was sporadic field work done last weekend, when temperatures climbed into the upper 70s and soil temperatures briefly hovered in the 50s, but few farmers have actually planted corn.

"There were some guys that went out and got started with some tillage," said Sandager, adding that some of the "turbo farmers" -- ones who farm a lot of land -- did quite a bit of planting.

At Hills Brothers, however, they're waiting for sustained warmer temperatures.

The cold and snow could affect germination of seeds already in the ground, said Sandager, noting that early plantings could be subject to crusting once the soil dries out. That crusting can prevent seed sprouts from pushing through the soil, leaving farmers with the option to destroy the crust or replant.

"There's a saying my dad had, 'If you're going to do your planting twice, you've got to get started early,'" Sandager joked.

Closer to Worthington, New Vision Cooperative Agronomy Manager Denny Weber said "very little planting has taken place."

"The soil temperature is right at 40 degrees (at the four-inch depth) today, and we need the soil temperature to get up to 50-55," Weber said Thursday. "Hopefully next week it warms up a little bit."

Lizabeth Stahl, University of Minnesota Extension crops specialist at Worthington, said once field conditions are right, farmers are "good to go."

With planting delays all across the Corn Belt, she cautioned farmers not to push too soon, too fast to get into the field.

"You don't want to mud (the crop) in," she said. "If we have drought conditions return this year, anything you do to compromise that root system, it's going to be amplified."

Optimal corn planting dates in Minnesota are generally between April 21 and May 6, based on long-term average planting data, but Stahl said every year is different.

"Once you get to that middle to end of May, that's where you see the yield curve go down in Minnesota," she added.

Back near Hills, Sandager -- with an eye on the weather forecast --said warmer temperatures are expected to return next week.

"It's not panic time yet," he said. "It appears it will warm up with consistently warmer soil temperatures, and that's when we'll go in. In the meantime, we're making sure everything is in top running order so we don't have down-time."

Sandager said some farmers in his area are starting to talk about changing seed varieties, perhaps shifting from a 105-day maturity to an 85-day maturity corn seed.

"The problem is availability of seed," he said. "Availability of seed is very scarce, we've been told."

With last year's drought, seed supplies are tighter, added Stahl, but she encourages people to hold off changing varieties for now.

"Hold that course until you get to the 20th to the 25th of May --hold onto your regular season hybrids up until then," she said. "We don't want to switch hybrids too early, and we don't want to switch to a too-early hybrid, either."

Looking back at historical planting dates, Weber said this year is closer to normal than what farmers have seen in a while. He worries more about the soil conditions than what the calendar says.

"We're going to need a lot of timely rains this summer," he said. "We have enough moisture to get the crops growing, but we don't have a lot of subsoil moisture."

Sandager said the tiles are still not running yet by his family's farm, meaning that all of the recent moisture went directly into the topsoil.

"The problem is we're still behind on adequate subsoil moisture," he said. "We have good conditions for planting, but the concern is it won't take long and we're going to need more."

To conserve what moisture is in the topsoil, Sandager said as many tillage passes as possible will be eliminated this season.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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