DUNDAS, Minn. - Brent Fuchs raced all day Saturday through to the early hours of Sunday planting corn. Last night, he stayed up late again, hoping to get his last 250 acres of soybeans in the ground before rain arrived today.
Farmers across Minnesota are rushing this week to get the last of their corn and soybeans in the ground after a cold, wet spring delayed planting past Memorial Day and into June, busting their plans and threatening to reduce growing times.
As of Sunday, 20% of the soybean crop and 8% of the corn crop in Minnesota were yet to be planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's way behind the average of the last five years; statistically, Minnesota farmers two weeks ago should have been where they are now.
Harvests are sure to be reduced as a result, and so may farmers' crop insurance coverage.
For Fuchs, this has been the latest planting in his 21 years as a farmer. Two weeks ago, he hadn't even started. "I don't remember a year where on Memorial Day weekend we had nothing planted," he said.
He and his neighbor Larry Salaba are helping each other by sharing the workload - one tills the fields ahead of the other, who runs a tractor pulling a planter on the freshly-prepared ground.
Salaba was planting on Monday morning on a field west of Dundas while Fuchs stood on the edge of the field, scooped a handful of dirt clods into his hand and squeezed. Blessedly, the clods broke apart in his hand.
"Two weeks ago, it would have been like a ribbon," said Fuchs, explaining how the dirt responds to being squeezed when it's still too wet. "This is not what I'd call an ideal seed bed, but it's too late to wait for the perfect field."
The week ending June 9 was good for farmers in other parts of the Midwest, where farmers were able to quickly make up lost ground. The corn crop in Indiana went from 31% planted to 100% planted in one week. The progress was similar in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, where farmers had been even farther behind schedule than in Minnesota.
Just over half of the corn acreage in the 18 major corn-producing states was planted after May 25, according to the USDA, compared with the average of 16.8% from 1986 through 2018
Corn yields drop a little when the planting is delayed until mid-May. After that, yields drop dramatically.
Past studies show farmers can lose up to 24% of their harvest if they don't plant corn until June 4, and up to 31% if they wait five days longer, according to the University of Minnesota Extension.
Soybean planting can happen later, but a June 9 planting loses farmers roughly 24% of their harvest and a June 14 planting loses them 30%.
Deciding when, what and whether to plant has been like putting together a moving puzzle for Fuchs and farmers across the Midwest who've had to juggle planting schedules to account for the wet ground, change the type of seed they plant and calculate the effects of market prices, insurance penalties and weather risk later this summer.
"We're going to need to have some things go in our favor," Fuchs said. "We could still have a decent crop."
Fuchs had to switch out his typical seed for seed with an earlier maturity date, and in his job selling seed for Pioneer, he's been helping farmers farther south switch out their seed for seed with earlier maturity dates. Seed that's usually planted in west central Minnesota has been planted in southern Minnesota, and seed typically targeted for southern Minnesota has been planted in Iowa and Illinois.
Fuchs considered not planting some of his fields, given how low the yields will be. But when the corn and soybean markets rallied in May, he decided to go for it, even though he's planted so late that he'll be penalized in his crop insurance coverage on his corn. Each day into June that the corn is planted subtracts a percentage from his coverage, and he didn't start planting until June.
"I lost 5% to 8% of coverage, but I was willing to roll the dice that it was better than not planting at all," Fuchs said.
The wet spring has also clogged shipping routes on the nation's rivers. Hundreds of barges are held up at locks on the southern Mississippi River because of high water and fast currents, keeping supplies from farmers and limiting crops sent to market.
By this time in a typical year, about 1,400 barges laden with fertilizer, cement and rock have made it to St. Paul. This year, only 90 barges have made it up the swollen river, said Molly Isnardi, vice president of Upper River Services.
Farmer cooperatives had to use trucks and rail to ship fertilizer to farmers, which makes it more expensive.
"It's systemwide, so it's really hurt the farmers in the entire Midwest region, because a lot of that fertilizer was stopped from getting to them," Isnardi said.
As for grain headed south to market, there's been none of that this spring, Isnardi said, even though some farmers would have liked to sell their grain after holding on to it through the low commodity prices that lasted into May.
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