BISMARCK, N.D. _ In the last two years, farmers have been growing corn and soybeans in areas not before suitable for the crops. A lot of progress has been reported with seed genetics, but several scientists say success also has been due to the weather.
According to studies by North Dakota State Climatologist and North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network Director Adnan Akyuz, the average annual temperature in North Dakota has increased by 0.27 degrees in the last 10 years. Because of the temperature increase, the length of the growing season has increased 17.5 days in the last century.
Parts of the state have been upgraded into a warmer sector of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness zones.
John Nowatzki, agricultural machine systems specialist at North Dakota State University, has studied the impact of warmer weather and more moisture on tilling practices. With different crops comes a return to tilling, he said. Increased moisture also is requiring more tilling, which raises the potential for soil erosion.
Nowatzki agrees the increase in corn acreage planted can be connected to change in the climate. He said the increased moisture, warmer weather and, therefore, a longer growing season, are all attributable to climate change. But elements like seed genetics and price are factors as well, he said.
In 2013, 3.5 million acres of corn have been harvested so far in North Dakota, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Farmers also planted 4.6 million soybean acres. Five years ago the acreage for the two crops was 2.3 million and 3.7 million. In 2003, those numbers were 1.25 million corn acres and 3.1 million soybean acres.
The larger corn and soybean crops have taken over land previously used for other crops. More has been planted on land released from USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program. According to the Farm Service Agency, the number of enrolled CRP acres went from 3.39 million in 2003 to 1.6 million acres this year.
“It’s possible to make more money with corn than with wheat,” said Taylor Musland, agronomist for Alliance Ag Cooperative in Bismarck, adding that he doesn’t think climate change is a factor in the spread of corn because weather changes year to year. “The genetics are making it possible to grow corn anywhere in the state,” he said.
North Dakota State University’s Agronomy Seed Farm Director Tom Teigen said without early maturing crop hybrids, North Dakota would not be the major player it is in corn today. However, the past 10 years have seen an increase in moisture, he said. If a dry year comes, drought-resistant corn is still being developed and current varieties would produce lower yields.
Teigen said the combo of genetics and climate have led to corn’s success. Even with hybrids, he said, without changes in moisture and the growing season, the crop would have been less successful.
“You can only force plants to take in so many nutrients in a short time span,” he said.
Corn can yield 120 to 150 bushels per acre compared to 40 to 60 bushels per acre for wheat, according to USDA Farm Service Agency.
Moving to the north and western parts of the state, the number of days it takes corn to mature changes. Musland said Bismarck has 85-day corn. To the south and west, it’s 81-day corn. And to the north, it’s 78- to 80-day corn.
Musland said some farmers, especially to the west, were planting wheat on the same field year after year. When it was possible to add corn to the crop rotation, it helped with weed control. And with corn prices peaking near $8 a bushel in 2012, it also was lucrative to plant.
Now corn prices are taking a hit, ranging from $3.27 per bushel in Tuttle to $3.75 per bushel in New Salem on Thursday. Musland said the price of corn has people kind of worried, making it less likely they will plant corn next year. He said many farmers buy seed this time of year for next year’s planting but many are waiting to see what prices do.
Wheat, another major crop grown in the state, has taken a back seat to corn and soybeans, Musland said. If corn stays around $4 per bushel and wheat climbs to $7 or $8 per bushel, farmers will be more likely to shift back.