May 25, 2024

Farmers look to drier fields, warmer soils to start planting

Tractor drilling seeding crops at farm field. Agricultural activity.

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Reed Anfinson


Strong winds and rising temperatures come with mixed outcomes for the area. 

On one hand, they are drying out the soils saturated with the spring melt of a near-record snowpack pushing ahead the time when farmers can start their spring field work. 

On the other hand, they also increase the chances of grass fires.

Wind gusts of up to 45 mph out of the northwest persisted from late Sunday morning into the evening in the Elbow Lake area. Blustery winds of over 30 mph buffered  much of the area Sunday and were to prevail through the day Monday.

In addition to dry soils, area farmers will need to see soil temperatures warm considerably. April was a near record cold month in western Minnesota and Grant County. 

Based on temperatures record at the Elbow Lake Municipal Airport’s National Weather Service recording station, April’s high temperatures were more than 9 degrees below average. The highs averaged 46 degrees compared to the long-term average of 55.1 degrees. Lows at 26.8 degrees were 6.1 degrees below the average of 32.9 degrees.

Only three high temperatures during April were above average, one hit the average, and the other 26 were below average. The month’s high was 75 degrees April 13.

By May 1, highs should be averaging 59 degrees and lows 33 degrees for Grant County.

Our cold April has meant soil temperatures have been slow to warm. At the USDA’s Swan Lake Research Farm in Stevens County, the soil temperature at 2 inches down was averaging 39 degrees. At a 4-inch depth, it was averaging 38.2 degrees.

Sunny days, with the sun becoming stronger each day as the days lengthen, and rising temperatures should help the soils warm quickly.

“As Minnesota farmers prepare to head into their fields and begin planting crops this spring, some are concerned about a late start due to soil temperatures and moisture conditions,” Jeffrey Strock, a professor at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, said.

He also is not optimistic about how much of the deep snowpack in the state replenished soils that were extremely dry going into the fall. By late September last year, all of Grant County was in a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“The ground was still frozen during the spring warm up so not a lot of the moisture available from the snow made it into the soil,” he says. “Although there was a lot of snow this winter, not all of the melted water associated with the snow seeps into the soil. Some evaporates and some runs off. It will be very important to receive rain this spring in order to recharge the soil profile for the 2023 growing season.”

“With the exception of one week during April, air temperatures have been on the cool side, not unlike 2022 when we had a cool wet start to spring,” he adds.

“It seems like we will have a near repeat of conditions from 2022 for the early part of the 2023 growing season. Farmers will likely start planting in early May. Fortunately, most farmers can get their crops planted quickly these days.”

Warm, dry soils are important for seed germination and growth. But getting the crop in the ground as soon as possible once May is underway is also important.

“Farmers and agronomists tend to pay close attention to soil temperatures early in the growing season,” Farm Management Analyst Kent Thiesse writes. “However, soil temperatures become less of a concern by late April. At that point, getting the crop in the ground gets to be more of a priority rather than soil temperatures.

“Research shows that 50% corn emergence will occur in 20 days at an average soil temperature of 50 degrees, which is reduced to only 10 days with an average soil temperature of 60 degrees. 

“The cool soil temperatures are also not very conducive for the initiation of soybean planting, as soybeans generally require even warmer soil temperatures than corn for good germination,” he writes “Agronomists encourage producers to adjust to soil conditions and weather forecasts when making planting decisions, as every year is different.”

In a recent column for the Herald, Thiesse goes on to write:

“Historically, early planting of corn usually leads to higher-than-normal state average corn yields in Minnesota and other Upper Midwest states. 

In the past decade, when 50% or more of the corn acres in Minnesota have been planted in April or the first week of May, the state has usually set or been near a record corn yield.

In 2015, corn planting in Minnesota was 83% completed by May 3, resulting in a record yield of 188 bushels per acre. It was followed with 89% of the corn planted by May 8 in 2016, again resulting in another record statewide corn yield of 193 bushels per acre. 

In 2020, when 76% of the corn was planted by May 3, the statewide corn yield was 192 bushels per acre, just short of the statewide record corn yield. 

One exception was in 2017, when most of Minnesota’s corn was planted in the first two weeks of May. Very favorable growing conditions throughout the year in most areas resulted in statewide record corn yield that year. 

Last year was also an exception to this trend, when the state had a record corn yield of 195 bushels per acre even though it did not achieve 50% of the corn planted until after May 15. However, a much higher % of the corn in southern Minnesota had been planted by May 10, and counties in the southern third of the state were largely responsible for the record statewide corn yield.  

Another exception was in 2021 when 71% of the statewide corn acreage was planted by May 3; however, the 2021 average corn yield in Minnesota was only 178 bushels per acre. This was due to drought conditions during the critical crop growing months of June and July that greatly reduced corn yields. In areas of the state that received adequate rainfall at the critical times, the 2021 corn yields were above average to near record levels.”

For an idea of crop progress from the past two years by the middle of May, here are two charts.

USDA Crop Progress Report 5-15-22

This Last Last 5-year

Crop Week Week Year Ave

Barley planted 16 5 93 70

Barely emerged – – – –

Barley jointing – – – –

Corn planted 35 9 94 72

Corn emerged – – – –

Edible beans planted – – – –

Edible beans emerged – – – –

Oats planted 44 23 94 78

Oats emerged 18 2 72 48

Oats jointing – – – –

Soybeans planted 11 2 85 47

Soybeans emerged – – – –

Wheat planted 5 2 99 75

Wheat emerged – – – –

Wheat jointing – – – –

Potatoes planted 36 8 81 67

Sunflowers planted – – – –

USDA Crop Progress Report 5-16-21

5-16 5-9 5-year

Crop 2021 2021 2020 Ave

Barley planted 95 94 90 91

Barely emerged 85 73 51 60

Barley jointing 22 7 10 7

Corn emerged 77 39 77 56

Edible beans planted 82 52 43 45

Edible beans emerged 28 5 18 10

Oats emerged 85 75 78 71

Oats jointing 35 21 28 23

Soybeans planted 87 82 86 68

Soybeans emerged 49 10 42 24

Wheat emerged 93 84 48 62

Wheat jointing 26 13 3 6

Potatoes planted 87 82 84 84

Sunflowers planted 84 67 42 59

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