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Fieldwork delayed by cold, moist spring: Frost went into soil as deep as 8 feet, soil specialist says

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A cold, icy April delayed the average start of farmers’ fieldwork to May 1, according to the Agriculture Department’s newest crop and weather report.

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The average start date for the past five years in North Dakota has been April 25, according to department statistics. Seed-killing frost has penetrated the soil as deep as 8 feet down in areas like Emmons County, said state extension soil specialist Dave Franzen.

Late starts inevitably affect the size and quality of yields, so farmers are wondering just when dry, warm weather will return. The answer: not so fast.

The National Weather Service’s one-month outlook for May predicts lower-than-normal temperatures and above-average moisture in North Dakota. Northern South Dakota, Minnesota’s top half and most of Montana will experience similar conditions.

In the past 30 days, counties in southwest North Dakota received between 125 and 300 percent more precipitation than the average, said North Dakota State University climatologist Adnan Akyuz.

“Everybody’s a little bit nervous and it’s hard to be patient. Patience is just it,” Franzen said.

Soil temperatures for certain long-season crops like corn and soybeans need to hit sweet spot of about 50 degrees to germinate, he said.

Spring wheat, durum, barley, canola, mustard, safflower, field peas and lentils germinate at 40 degrees, according to extension service information.

According to the National Weather Service, the average soil temperature in Dickinson for May 1 was 44 degrees, down slightly from 45 degrees from the same time last week. When soils thaw, they increase to temperatures more hospitable to spring fieldwork, Akyuz said.

It would be safe for meteorologists to expect weather patterns similar to May for the next three months, according to current temperature models, he said.

“When it is wet and cold in a region for a long time, it tends to stay cold and wet. The wetness would bring wetness. The dryness would bring dryness,” Akyuz said.

But, there are no particularly worrisome planting trends yet, said Dickinson Research Extension Center agronomist Patrick Carr. If a farmer doesn’t accomplish any planting for another week, it would be only slightly late for crops like canola and peas, which are ideally seeded as early as possible in the spring.

“Of course, many farmers need to plant large acreages, and this may already mean that they will be planting later than they would like,” Carr said.

Barry Coleman, executive director of the Bismarck-based Northern Canola Growers Association, said canola farmers “aren’t too concerned,” as long as they get their planting in by May 15.

“People are definitely being delayed right now, so there’s an inconvenience,” Coleman said.

Franzen recommended prioritizing seeding on warm days, then worrying about fertilizing later. He said he expects a “horrendous” backup at fertilizer plants, caused by a rush when temperatures rise all at once.

As to when a temperature bump will come, Franzen is working day by day.

“There’s no way of knowing. I don’t trust the weatherman. I don’t believe forecasts.”

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