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Paynesville Press - May 18, 2005

Cool spring delays corn sprouting, soybean planting

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Cold weather for spring planting - coupled with high fuel costs - could mean bad news for area farmers, but many remain optimistic that this spring's hardships can be overcome with help from Mother Nature.

Area farmers felt fortunate when April began as one of the warmest on record, and many took advantage of the warm weather to prepare their fields and begin planting corn. But cold weather - including freezing temperatures and snow for five days in a row in April and colder than average temperatures for the first weeks in May - has meant much of the crop hasn't emerged yet. In fact, farmers reported that some corn, which usually emerges within a week to ten days of plant-ing in warm soil, has been in the ground for more than three weeks and has yet to emerge.

planting field Statewide, only 10 percent of the corn planted had emerged, compared to 50 percent last year and 35 percent for the five-year average, according to the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service.

This St. Martin farmer takes advantage of a sunny day to work on spring planting. Most area farmers have finished planting corn, but cooler than normal weather has delayed germination and kept corn from emerging. This week's weather forecast calls for warmer, wet weather, which could give corn a much-needed growing boost.

Bob Lieser, who farms north of Paynesville, took advantage of warm weather for early planting. All of Bob's corn has been planted, and while none has emerged yet, some has finally shown signs of germination, he said.

According to Tom Wendlandt of the St. Martin Co-op Association, today's hybrid corn seed is pretty sturdy. Most seed is coated with fungicides and should be fine sitting in the ground for a while without rotting or dying, as long as it is not saturated.

"Corn can handle dry and cold, but wet and cold is not good," added Dave Nicolai of the Meeker County Extension Office. Fortunately the ground is still relatively dry. "We're fortunate the corn was still in the ground when it got cold," he added. Otherwise, the frost would have damaged the young crops.

Most of the area's soybeans have not been planted, but it's not unusual for many area farmers to wait until mid-May to plant soybeans. Soybeans, according to Lieser, are more sensitive to cold than corn, and are more susceptible to rotting in the ground. He planted some soybeans last week, but now he's a little concerned about the forecast for the upcoming week, so he's holding his breath for warmer weather so his seeds don't die in the ground.

According to Nicolai, the biggest threat to crops during cold weather is not frost, but insects like the corn root borer. These insects awake at temperatures lower than the temperature required for corn to germinate and could make a feast of the seeds. Whether the seeds or young plants freeze, rot, or are eaten by insects, they would have to be re-planted, which is never good, but especially not this year.

Farmers never want to re-plant -  it's costly and time consuming - but the current cost of fuel, which is about 35 percent higher than last year, has driven up the cost of everything from fertilizer to herbicides and pesticides, so farmers could really suffer from the added expense, said Nicolai.

The wholesale price of diesel fuel is about $1.80 per gallon now, compared to last spring's price of $1.35, according to Paul Evans of the Paynesville Farmer's Union. And the fuel price has affected nearly everything farmers' need to produce a crop, he added. Nitrogen fertilizers, which require propane for production, are up about 20 percent and even the cost of seed and chemicals are up because of fuel surcharges for delivery, Evans said.

Evans figured the average area farmer will spend $20 to $30 more per acre to produce a crop. To make things worse, current market prices for corn are down, Evans said.

Last year, area farmers received an average price of $2.37 per bushel for corn and produced an average of 146 bushels per acre, grossing about $346 per acre, according to a report from the Farm Business Management Service. On average, area farmers spent about $207 to produce an acre of corn, earning about $139 in profit. (This total included fuel, seed, fertilizer, insurance, and miscellaneous expenses including hired help and maintenance, but it did not include land rent.)

The price for corn was $1.95 per bushel as of Monday, May 16. At that price, a farmer producing 146 bushels of corn per acre would gross $284 per acre. With an added expense of $30 per acre of corn for fuel, chemicals, and fertilizer, it could cost that farmer $237 to grow an acre of corn, yielding a $47 per-acre profit.

But the commodities market changes regularly, and there is a chance prices will go up.

Farmers should not cut corners on fuel or chemical costs, according to Jim Molenaar, the regional dean of management education at Ridgewater College. As a member of Minnesota's Farm Business Management Program, Molenaar believes that farmers become more profitable by becoming more efficient, and this year's fuel challenge shouldn't be any different. Farmers who cut back on fertilizers or chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, etc.) could find themselves with lower yields, which would definitely lower profits, he said.

Bill Lieser, Bob's brother, who farms between Regal and Georgeville, will skimp a little on tillage to save on fuel costs. Instead of tilling all of his fields twice, he will only till once, unless it's necessary to do it again, he said. Fortunately, he pre-bought fertilizer at last year's prices, so he won't spend extra on that this year, he said. Bob Lieser will also single till wherever he can, and he will try to use more manure to add nitrogen to his fields. He will pay closer attention to soil tests before adding other fertilizers, using fertilizers only on those areas that really need it. In addition, he changed the type of corn he planted this year, so he could use a less expensive herbicide.

Brad Glenz, who farms north of Paynesville, will not change any of his planting procedures. As a dairy farmer, market prices won't hurt him too much since he will feed most of his corn to his animals, he said. He only hopes milk prices will hold strong to help offset the high cost of growing corn. In order to produce a crop that is healthy enough to help offset some of the planting costs, the weather will have to cooperate, said Bob Lieser. Last year's cool, wet summer could have been disastrous to crops, but a late fall warm-up saved most crops. Still, much of the area's corn was harvested wet and had to be dried before it could be sold, which hurt profits, Bob said.

A long, warm summer would really help increase yields this year.

With gas prices so high this year, area farmers definitely can't afford another year like last year, he said.

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