Posted 4/19/16 (Tue)
By Amy Robinson
Farmer Staff Writer
An unusually warm and dry spring brought about by an El Nino weather pattern has made it possible for farmers in McKenzie County to get into their fields about a week to two weeks ahead of when they started their spring farming last year. And last year, farmers were about a month ahead of schedule.
“After today, I’ll probably have about 25 percent of my crops in the ground,” stated Cameron Wahlstrom, Alexander farmer, on April 15. “I probably officially started farming on April 10, this year. I was able to get into my fields earlier because of the warmer temps and lack of moisture.”
“I’m about a week or two earlier than last year,” explained Nevin Dahl, another McKenzie County farmer, who farms south of Watford City.
Compared to years previous, McKenzie County farmers have started to make good progress this year. Due to very little snow over the winter, hardly any rain, and unusually higher temperatures this spring, farmers were set up for an even earlier spring farming season.
Along with Wahlstrom and Dahl, many farmers around different parts of McKenzie County started farming last week, says Mike Jenks, branch manager for Helena Chemical Company in Watford City. But with farmers facing poor prices for their favorite crops, specialty crops will likely see more acreage this year.
“Wheat prices are down this year,” said Jenks. “They’re roughly 20 to 25 percent down from last year. So there’s a few more pulse acres going that will take away from wheat acres. And there are specialty crops. I’d say our top three or four specialty crops around here are peas, lentils, canola, and flax.”
Soybeans and wheat, which along with corn are the nation’s three major crops, are expected to see fewer acres, with wheat suffering an especially big drop. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, upper Midwest farmers, like their peers nationwide, will likely plant more corn. But producers in the region, home to an exceptionally diverse mix of crops, have mixed intentions with other options. Some crops, including barley and edible beans, could see fewer acres. Others, including canola, could see more. But lentils, a rising star in Montana and western North Dakota, could be the biggest percentage winner of all.
Those are among the projections in the annual prospective plantings report, released March 31, by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I definitely think specialty crops have seen more acreage this year,” stated Wahlstrom. “There’s a lot of lentils and peas. They have pretty high prices right now. And you’ll see a lot more durum compared to spring wheat with the lower prices.”
Over the past five years, 2016 and 2015 have seen more field activity. According to Bob Wisness, president of the McKenzie County Seed Improvement Association and local farmer, 2011 and 2013 were very wet years, leaving farmers with a lot of ground they weren’t able to seed. And 2014 started its spring farming season about a month late due to a longer winter and colder temperatures.
“Farming is all weather-dependent,” explained Jenks. “Everything is purely related to the weather. If it’s cold, wet, and snow - then you start later. If it’s dry like this, we’re going to be where we are now.”
With time to turn the dry conditions around for this spring’s farming season, farmers aren’t too worried at this point. However, it’s still in the back of every farmer’s head.
“You’re never two weeks out from a drought,” stated Dahl. “But I’m not too worried right now.”
“Hopefully, it’ll rain,” added Wahlstrom. “I’m a little concerned, but not overly-worried at this point. Hopefully, it’ll be a little cooler to offset the dry conditions.”
As far as subsoil moisture is concerned, Wahlstrom says it’s surprisingly a little better this year. He says his subsoil is about a fourth to a half an inch down. The good subsoil conditions will also help offset the drier conditions for farmers this spring. If farmers didn’t have the subsoil moisture, McKenzie County might be classified as a drought area. But that hasn’t happened yet.
“Our subsoil moisture is not empty, but it’s not full either,” explains Jenks. “I’d say we’re moderate right now. We didn’t get much snow this year so we’re drier. Our dew point is lower and we’re on a dry side for precipitation. We had some moisture last fall to get us some subsoil moisture. It’s early though and it’s still in the back of everyone’s mind.”
“If famers have livestock, they’re probably thinking of some forage and crops they might need to grow that they’d typically have a cash crop on,” added Jenks. “Instead of cash grain, it’s feed, like hay.”
As is with any industry alongside the big oil and gas companies in McKenzie County, farming and agriculture continue to coexist alongside these giants. But with the lower oil prices, farmers are feeling the hit as well.
“It kind of seems like commodities are lower, like the oil prices,” explained Wahlstrom. “The only upside it that it’s been a little easier to move equipment up and down the roadways.”
Regardless of the oil and gas industry, farming and agriculture are what communities in McKenzie County were established on. It’s what brought people to North Dakota.
“Farming and agriculture are what pretty much started people being out here,” added Wahstrom. “It’s what started our communities and brought people out here. It’s what we were built on and what we still lean on today.”
Farmers in McKenzie County will most likely be wrapping up their spring farming in the first half of May.