Brady Wulf, MFG Cover photo 2020, 04/10

About the cover: Brady Wulf, Starbuck, examines a cover crop mixture on March 31, 2020. The field will be planted to corn. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak and Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, farmers were listed as critical workers, and they continued their preparation for the 2020 growing season.

Pickups pulling trailers with totes of seed, semi-trailers hauling commodities, and tractors moving manure were common sights in Greater Minnesota.

Thankfully, the growing season was starting out much easier than the past two record wet and cold springs.

“The beginning of 2020 has not been all that wet in Minnesota, but we’re coming off of extraordinary wetness,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, climate scientist with the Minnesota State Climatology Office. He spoke at the Soybean Symposium webinar sponsored by the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council.

Dry conditions throughout February and March prevented extreme early-spring wetness and flooding, especially in southern Minnesota.

The early 2020 growing season looks warm and wet according the Climate Prediction Center, he said, but he added that we should take those long-term forecasts as just a general trend.

For April-June, the forecasts show a tendency for Minnesota to be warm based on the models that seasonal forecasters are using. Rainfall is very difficult to forecast over three months.

Blumenfeld said that if we do get heavy rains, there is little-to-no water-holding capacity available in the soil.

“If this (dry) pattern that we have continues, I think fieldwork would be in pretty good shape over the next four, to six, to eight weeks,” he said (on March 26). “The good news is we have spent a decent amount of time recently losing some of the moisture in our soils, so that’s a lot better than the situation we were in hydroclimatically last year.”

Prospective Plantings

USDA released its March 31 Prospective Plantings report indicating farmers intend to plant more corn and soybeans.

Across the U.S., corn plantings for 2020 were estimated at 97 million acres – up 8 percent or 7.29 million acres from last year.

In Minnesota, farmers indicated they plan to plant 8.4 million acres of corn – up 8 percent from last year’s 7.8 million acres. The additional 600,000 acres would add 90 million bushels of corn, given an average yield of 150 bushels per acre.

Figuring a 150-bushel per acre crop across the entire 8.4 million acres would suggest 1.26 billion bushels of corn raised in Minnesota. Of course, some acres are always abandoned, and many fields will yield much higher than 150 bushels.

For U.S. soybeans, farmers intend to plant 83.5 million acres – up 10 percent from last year. Minnesota farmers want to plant 17.4 million acres to soybeans – up 8 percent from 2019.

All wheat production is down 1 percent across the U.S. at 44.7 million acres. In Minnesota, wheat production is estimated down 7 percent from 2019 at 1.35 million acres.

Oat production is forecast up 4 percent from a year ago at 250,000 acres, barley is down 7 percent at 65,000 acres.

Minnesota’s hay harvest is estimated up 5 percent for 2020 at 1.15 million acres. Canola production, on 62,000 acres in northwest Minnesota is up 22 percent from one year ago. Sunflowers are slated for planting on 77,000 acres in Minnesota – up 33 percent from one year ago.

COVID-19 stay-home orders may provide air quality improvement

Farmers are used to reading the weather and understanding climate. We just don’t know if the drastic drop in car emissions will or will not change air quality in big U.S. farm country.

A blip – that’s what climatologists are forecasting for the impact of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders on global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

“We are making some reductions in our CO2 emissions,” Blumenfeld said. “If this were to continue for a year, it would look sort-of like a blip on the path we’ve been on. The longer this goes, the less of a blip it will be and the more of a small dent.”

While people are driving less, mass industrial production continues. Heating and cooling homes continues. A lot of emissions – whether CO2 or methane – are still going up into the atmosphere, he said.

The shorter the length of stay-at-home orders, the less likely that people will make any changes to their long-term driving and consumption habits.

The question will ultimately be: What happens when the stay-at-home order ends? Do we go back to everything we’ve been doing?

“I assume we will by and large, because people will still have cars, and there will still be airplanes,” Blumenfeld said. “(We will see) which of the changes that we’ve made stick, and which of the activities that have been hit hardest don’t fully recover and force innovation in some more efficient areas.”