Freak Snowstorm Takes Toll on North Dakota Crops

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A major early-season blizzard that hit North Dakota and other parts of the northern Plains this weekend took a measurable toll on crops. Plant conditions rating good to excellent in North Dakota as of Oct. 13 fell 9 percentage points for corn and 8 percentage points for soybeans, with both hitting season lows, according to the USDA’s weekly Crop Progress report.

And the Gro Intelligence Soybean Yield Model forecast for North Dakota fell to 35.4 bushels per acre from 36.6 bu/acre, when the model incorporated the new USDA condition ratings. The storm, which hit much earlier in the season than normal, dumped as much as 2 feet of snow.

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The chart on the left shows the level of good-to-excellent crop conditions for soybeans in North Dakota from the USDA’s Crop Progress report. The latest reading (blue line with markers) dropped to a low for the season following the weekend snowstorm. The chart on the right shows observed snow depth from a GHCN weather station in central North Dakota. Seventeen inches measured on Oct. 12 was by far the highest in history dating back to 1917. Typically that level of snow is not seen until late November or December. 

Further damage might be felt more widely, as freezing temperatures hit many states as far south as Iowa and Nebraska. Once the crop season got off to a late start this spring because of planting delays, corn and soybeans are at greater than normal risk for late season weather events. Soybeans are only 16% harvested in North Dakota compared to a five-year average of 67%, and only 1% of corn is harvested, compared to a 12% average, according to the USDA report.

Not only will the excess precipitation prevent farm vehicles from getting into the field to harvest, any frost damage will slow the drying process and force farmers to make tough decisions about when to harvest. Freeze damaged corn and soybeans will be less mature and have a higher moisture content. But a farmer risks losing more yield by leaving already mature plants in the field while waiting for the damaged crops to dry down. Lodging and ear drop can affect corn, while mature soybeans can become brittle and prone to shattering if they go through wetting and drying cycles. Harvesting a field with some immature plants will also result in lower quality and require the use of dryers that adds additional cost to the farmer. Care must also be taken when harvesting immature crops so as to not break cobs or smash beans.

Farmers are hoping for two to three weeks of dry and sunny weather to melt the snow and dry out fields in order to resume work. The current long-range forecast from NOAA’s Global Forecast System shows minimal rainfall and warmer temperatures for the next 10 days, but freezing temperatures return around Oct. 26 with extreme lows on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29 near zero degrees Fahrenheit. That could add many weeks to harvesting time when North Dakota is already several weeks behind normal. Fields that remain unharvested by the time seasonal snow cover accumulates in mid to late November may not get harvested until March when the fields can dry out.

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