Raymond, Minnesota, farmer Noah Hultgren finished planting all of his corn and sugar beet acres as of last week — realizing the crops still faced possible freeze for days to come.
He’s betting on Minnesota — that June rains will come.
Hultgren is not alone.
Farmers in the region are far ahead of schedule, this time not facing wet conditions that have in the past five years often pushed back planting by weeks. Though most of the corn crop is in the ground, they’re crossing their fingers it won’t be lost to frost.
Southern Minnesota farmers usually are waiting for warmer conditions and wet fields to dry in April and May. Persistent drought since last summer and relatively little snowfall has made for near-perfect planting conditions. As of the week of May 10, Minnesota far and away led the pace with 95% of corn planted, according to USDA. That’s far ahead of last year at this time when, according to USDA, just 31% of the state’s corn crop was in the ground, and still way ahead of the five-year average between 2009 and 2013 of 62%.
All of southern Minnesota sits in moderate drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. It has worsened significantly since May 2014. At that time, just the southwestern tip and a small area of northern Minnesota reported drought. Now, drought monitor maps show nearly the entire state in moderate-to-severe drought.
Since Sept. 1, 2014, south-central Minnesota around the Sherburn area has had 11.83 inches of precipitation, or 5.31 inches below normal. Central Minnesota in the Raymond area has had just 9.32 inches, or nearly 7 inches below normal since September.
Hultgren said the dry weather has done nothing to change his crop rotations or marketing strategy. It simply has allowed him to plant early with the hope of having added crop maturity time later in the season.
“For the most part, we just believe the weather patterns are going to happen,” Hultgren said. “We typically get late May into mid-June — we typically get a fair amount of rain at that time. It didn’t really change our planting plan at all with how dry it was. We just believe in Minnesota. It will change. I can still get snowflakes here in May sometimes. So I guess, are we concerned? Yeah, I guess we’re concerned about getting a good start.”
Hultgren and his brother operate a 5,000-acre farm growing edible beans, sugar beets, corn for feed, sweet corn and soybeans. They finished planting corn and beets at a time when typically they’ve completed maybe 75% of beets and half of the corn acres.
Hultgren said he’ll probably wait until the middle or later part of May to plant edible beans, and possibly as late as early June to plant sweet corn.
He had at least some beets planted by the week of April 23, then watched as temperatures fell into the 20s.
“Our beet co-op, some guys had some beets that emerged and there was some re-planting,” Hultgren said. “We were a little concerned on the stuff we had planted even though nothing emerged. Typically, we get lots of snow. Last year at this time, I don’t know if we had anything in the ground. It was so cold, had so much snow on the ground.”
Gerald Tumbleson, Sherburn, Minnesota, corn and soybean farmer, said it only takes a trip around his farm to realize how dry it is.
There is no standing water.
“We turned dry last July,” he said. “The fortunate part about last July is we had a very wet June. All of our subsoil was full. We probably drowned out 8% of our corn crop last year. As yields go, we were good; as far as the price, it was a disaster. This year it looks like it’s going to be worse. The moisture is also going to be worse. We have no tiles running hardly at all. So we didn’t get any fall rains, we didn’t get any snow.
“If you were driving by our farms today, you would say we’re better than we’ve ever been this time of the year.”
Like Hultgren, Tumbleson said he had some concern about getting all 4,500 acres of corn and soybeans in the ground before the threat of frost had fully passed.
Two or three years ago, spring freezes damaged his corn. “The weather forecasts for this year were for warm for the last half of April and the first 10 days of May,” Tumbleson said. “Our average last frost is between the first and 10th of May. Well, you have to play the averages. You can’t play anything else.”
By planting early, it could give him an additional eight or 10 days of maturity for his corn, he said. That’s important because there is a narrow growing window in southern Minnesota.
Although profits of the past five years have allowed him to invest in new grain bins, dryers and other equipment, Tumbleson has saved enough money to get through what could be a difficult few years for producers.
“It’s a sad thing to say, but you’re minimizing losses,” he said. “You never want to be in a business where you minimize losses. But to contract corn, we’ve sold corn ahead. Fortunately, we started selling a year and a half ago. Now we could get a drought this summer through the whole Corn Belt, and this price of corn could go 50 cents to a $1 higher. If you sell it now and it does that, your minimized losses might have been a little bit of a gain.”
As a result of lower corn prices, Tumbleson said he scaled back from about 65% corn to a 50-50 split between corn and beans.
Tumbleson is like many farmers across the country who made good profits from corn prices in the $4 to $6 range, but the price has fallen below $4 and input prices haven’t moved. Three dollars to $3.75 for corn is a good historical price, he said. It wouldn’t be such a concern had inputs not been priced for $4 to $6 corn.
Richard Peterson, a Sherburn, Minnesota, corn farmer, said because he struggled to get yields above 40 bushels per acre for soybeans on his 1,500-acre dryland farm, he has moved to mostly corn. On dryland, Peterson said he typically gets 180 to 200 bushels an acre.
“This year we’re two-thirds corn,” he said. “We just can’t get the yields out of soybeans. We have tried conventional till and no till. We went back to disk ripping corn stalks. We’re not getting the yields out of that either. It’s tempting to pull out the moldboard plow.”
Peterson and his brother started planting corn on April 14, some six to 10 days ahead of schedule. “We don’t worry about frost too much,” he said. “I suppose we’d replant. I never get hit by frost.”
Peterson’s farm has had very little precipitation since May of last year.
“Usually, we get a lot of it marketed by this time, but this year we haven’t done anything,” he said. “We’re a long ways from having a crop. We’re probably in the best conditions we’ve ever planted in. Stands good, gives corn a chance to root down. All it takes is rain now. We can get a couple of inches now and again.”