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Archive for Saturday, May 24, 2008

Some Upper Midwest winter wheat farmers succumb to nature

May 24, 2008

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— Jerry Blotter has grown winter wheat on his central North Dakota farm for decades. This year, he's destroying much of his crop and seeding corn and spring wheat instead.

A lack of soil moisture last fall, lack of protective snow cover for the young plants over the winter and lack of rain in the spring left him no choice, despite the added cost of reseeding.

Blotter, who farms near Coleharbor, said he lost or killed off about 400 of his 550 winter wheat acres.

"Because of the lack of moisture, it just didn't have anything to get it up and going when it broke dormancy (this spring)," he said. "It wasn't really a tough decision, because there was no crop there."

Other Upper Midwest farmers are in the same position, plowing under their winter wheat and starting anew with different crops, industry officials say.

Winter wheat is seeded in the fall for harvest the following summer. It has become popular because it saves farmers time in the spring, and yields have been strong in recent years. Also, prices have moved closer to those for spring wheat after years of running behind.

Last fall, farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana seeded nearly 5.3 million acres of winter wheat, up from 4.8 million acres the year before, according to federal Agriculture Department data.

In North Dakota, the problems this spring are primarily in the central and western part of the state, which have been harder hit by dry weather, said Erica Peterson, a marketing specialist with the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

In Montana, "we've heard some spotty reports of the same kind of thing, where folks have either had winter kill or the spring rains haven't come," said Cheryl Tuck, spokeswoman for the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee.

Neither Peterson nor Tuck had an estimate on the number of winter wheat acres in their states that have been lost or destroyed this spring.

The Agriculture Department Risk Management Agency regional office in Billings, Mont., does not expect to have figures for another month. Data also will not be available for the entire region, because winter wheat cannot be insured against winter kill in North Dakota and part of South Dakota. In areas where the crop often does not make it through the winter, it can be insured only if the plants get a good start in the spring.

"We understand there's new, hardier varieties being developed all the time," said Kathleen Gilbertson, a senior risk management specialist in Billings. "But in our crop insurance world, we deal with past statistics."

Blotter said the crop insurance program is unfair and should at least compensate North Dakota farmers for loss of seed and time, if not for the actual lost crop.

A program that pays farmers in the Dakotas who grow winter wheat also lost some acreage this spring. Blake Vander Vorst, a Ducks Unlimited regional agronomist in Bismarck, estimated that up to 15 percent of the 5,700 acres planted through the program last fall will be seeded to other crops this spring.

Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group, provides the incentives with the help of chemical companies because winter wheat minimizes field disturbance in the spring when ducks are nesting because it is seeded in the fall.

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