There may be no such thing as an average growing season, but this spring might come close.
Rain and cool conditions have created challenges in some areas, but grain farmers in many parts of the Northeast are comfortable with their progress as of mid-May.
In Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Noah Detwiler started planting on May 1, which is actually a week ahead compared to last year. Detwiler credits his fast start to relatively dry weather leading up to planting.
“Once the snow melted, it dried up pretty quick,” he said. “It’s been almost perfect conditions.”
In Pennsylvania, a third of the corn crop had been planted by Monday, and farmers were just getting started on soybeans, according to USDA.
Rains rolled in and the mercury dropped a few days after he started planting, so Detwiler has been focusing on fields that have some slope or drain well.
Jon Lucas was pleased with the start to his season in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He had 450 acres of corn and 100 acres of soybeans planted — about one-third of his total crop — by early May.
And then the rain and cool temperatures arrived, bringing everything to an abrupt halt.
With more than 2,200 acres to plant this spring — not to mention his spraying work — Lucas’ goal to be done planting by June 1 suddenly seemed more formidable than it had.
“Hopefully we can meet it this year, but it’s going to be a few days before we can get going again,” said Lucas, who plants the majority of his acreage with no-till. “We need a good two weeks of no rain with plenty of sun and warmth to catch up.”
He’s concerned that the seed that he’s already planted could be set back by the saturated soil.
If the planting window continues to narrow, Lucas could switch to short-maturity corn varieties just to get a crop in the ground, but the move isn’t ideal.
“Normally when you do that, you’re trading dollars because the yields aren’t as good,” Lucas said.
Despite the temptation of a strong grain market, Lucas hasn’t changed his cropping plan. He prefers to let the yearly price fluctuations average out.
One important part of planting season has been far from average this spring.
“This is one of the worst years for input costs, and it’s all across the board,” Lucas said. “Nitrogen is up $140 a ton. Fuel is up significantly. The input costs will shrink our margins this year.”
Rain has slowed down field work in western Pennsylvania as well.
Andrew Kimmel of Creekland Farms in Shelocta, Indiana County, had just started planting in early May before he was brought to a halt by 4 inches of rain over five days.
“We got a couple acres of corn and soybeans in, and then no one went anywhere,” said Kimmel, who plants approximately 800 acres of corn and 800 acres of soybeans. “Right now is the ideal time to plant, but it’s not going to happen.”
In Butler, Zach Speer hasn’t even gotten as far as Kimmel. Speer had hoped to plant 400 acres by May 1, but frequent rains and chilly temperatures have kept him out of the fields.
“Everything is cold, both the air and ground temperatures,” he said.
In the past few weeks, Speer’s area has gotten over 2 inches of rain and seen the temperature often dip below 50 degrees at night. Once warm weather arrives, Speer hopes the ground will dry out just enough that he can get started.
As Kimmel acknowledges, this isn’t the first time that rain has seriously disrupted his spring. He’s had years when planting spilled over into June and other years when perfect weather let him finish corn planting in April. Because of wet weather, he mudded in some of his crop last year.
“If we can get going next week, that will be acceptable,” Kimmel said. “We’d like to have it all in by the last week of May, before we think it’s getting late.”
Since his operation is 100% no-till, Kimmel said he can get fields planted quickly and possibly catch up even if weather causes additional delays. And if the season does run long, it’s not the end of the world.
“A late-planted crop with the equipment of today isn’t as bad as it used to be,” he said. “You can cover a lot of acres much faster.”
And though the fields have been wet, soil temperatures have been bouncing between 45 and 50 degrees. As long as temperatures don’t dip, Kimmel doesn’t expect any trouble with cold soil.
Kimmel agreed with Lucas that input costs are painful this year, but he thinks tight supply could be a greater concern.
Certain chemicals are becoming hard to find, he said, and dealers have told Kimmel they’ll take back whatever he doesn’t use.
“Availability is getting to be a challenge this year, and for some chemicals there’s a shortage across the country,” he said.
On Maryland’s Lower Shore, Sarah Hirsh estimated that 20% of farmers had planted corn, and she didn’t know of anyone who had planted soybeans by Monday morning.
Most of the cover crops were terminated over the past few weeks, said Hirsh, a University of Maryland Extension agent based in Somerset County.
About a quarter of Maryland corn and 15% of soybeans had been planted by Monday, according to USDA.
The first week of May offered few opportunities for planting because scattered storms dropped several inches of rain. The area has a lot of silt soils that can get standing water.
“Once it rains, a lot of our fields will take a while to dry back out,” Hirsh said.
Still, Hirsh thinks farmers are on track with previous years’ planting progress. Wet springs, after all, are common.
Unfortunately, farmers also had a wet harvest season last fall. Though most farmers in the area use no-till, some have brought out tillage equipment this spring to fix the ruts they created last year, Hirsh said.
James Powell, one of the farmers Hirsh works with, estimated that corn planting is pretty far along in his area, and some farmers are starting on soybeans.
The season started off cold and wet, with spring’s familiar up-and-down temperatures. A week of daytime temperatures into the 70s was followed by a week with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s. Those cold overnight temperatures rob the soil of warmth it will need for seed development.
Still, Powell’s planting progress is comparable to previous years. He’s not behind, at any rate.
“With the farmers and the equipment they’ve got nowadays, it don’t take long to catch up,” said Powell, who farms just over 500 acres in Worcester County, Maryland.
Farmers are just beginning to plant corn in Vermont, where conditions are looking familiar for this time of year.
After a warm, dry April, which is abnormal in New England, May has been rainy and cool so far, a much more typical weather pattern.
“The farming practices are back to a normal schedule,” said Jeff Carter, a field crops specialist with University of Vermont Extension. “We’re terminating cover crops and just starting to think about corn planting.”
Soybeans will pick up at the end of the month.
Though Vermont has lost some dairy farms in the past year, Carter said those farm fields are now being planted by other farmers, so planted acreage shouldn’t change much.
The hay is looking good, Carter said, and he expects a good first cutting.
As farmers start getting into the fields to incorporate cover crops, Carter said that no winter damage is being reported.
New York’s planting season has been defined by the lingering effects of last year’s drought.
“We had a really good start to the season up here,” said Kitty O’Neil, a field crops specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s North Country Regional Ag Team. “A lot of perennial seedings went in early — a lot earlier than we’re used to.”
When the snow melted, fields were dry from the drought and gave farmers suitable conditions for planting early on. Since then, there’s been a good amount of rain, which has slowed farmers down a bit.
“There’s not a lot of corn in the ground,” O’Neil said. “Maybe 25% or something is in at this point, which is not behind at all. Now if we can get some dry weather, corn will go in lickity-split.”
Soybeans will start to go in at the end of this month, and once they’re in the ground, farmers will have to keep an eye on the soybean cyst nematode, which is now in New York.
O’Neil expects that corn and soybean acreage will be comparable to past years.
“We’re still feeding the same number of cows, so it would probably be a similar number of acres,” she said.
As for hay, O’Neil said that there wasn’t much winter kill on alfalfa. Cornell measures alfalfa height for first cuttings, and O’Neil said the crop is a few inches ahead of where it’s been at this point in the past few years.
“It’s all looking really positive this early in the season,” she said.