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A John Deere tractor sits partially submerged in a ditch west of Grafton, N.D., last week. The tractor and pump had been used for draining water from a field following heavy rains in the area. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

Less corn, more canola likely in drenched northeast ND

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The wet, late spring has wiped out any chance of Cavalier County shattering its corn acreage this year.

"We had 5,000 acres of corn last year. That was a record," Extension Agent Ron Beneda said. "The original talk last fall was that we maybe were going to have four times that record -- 20,000 acres would have been in this spring. Now, it's back to the 5,000 acres."

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The late, wet spring, capped by a recent five-day period in which 2 to 9 inches of rain fell in parts of northeastern North Dakota, changed all of that.

Today, many farmers in northeastern North Dakota are rethinking their planting intentions, abandoning longer-season crops such as corn and switching instead to crops such as canola or beans.

Some are just getting back into their fields. Others are still waiting.

Brian O'Toole needed a boat to check his fields last week.

"I had land under 3 feet of water," the Crystal farmer said Wednesday as he moved from field to field, seeding what little he could -- wheat, sugar beets, potatoes and soybeans.

"It's a beautiful day. The sun is shining, but it's too wet to get in the fields," he said. "We only got stuck once today, but we're still out there trying."

Goodbye bin-buster

Heavy rains between May 17 and May 22 dropped as much as 9 inches of rain in some areas of northeast North Dakota.

While O'Toole managed to get 500 acres of wheat and 200 acres of corn planted before the rain, what crop has emerged is showing signs of stress. At this late date, he's moving more toward sugar beets, potatoes and beans.

He's further ahead than many other producers in northeastern North Dakota. Some have not been able to get into their fields yet.

"As of today, we have not," said Carl Tollefson, who farms near Osnabrock in Cavalier County. "It's extremely frustrating. It's such a sharp contrast from what we had last year. With every day that passes, the prospect of a good crop diminishes even more."

Unlike some other producers, Tollefson's current crop rotation prevents him from switching crops, he said.

"We're ever hopeful and trying to remain positive," he added, "but the bin-buster is already gone."

Rain ahead

The National Weather Service is not providing much hope, with a forecast for as much as 1.5 inches of rain over the next few days.

"It's getting very serious, especially since we can't break out into a good drying weather period," Beneda said. "That last rain mostly just saturated our ground to the point where we need sunshine to dry those fields so we can get back in."

Like Tollefson, farmers in parts of Pembina County also are waiting to return to their fields, according to Extension Agent Samantha Lahman. Spurred by good prices, they too were looking to plant more corn this year.

"It really sounded like some farmers got really excited about putting in some corn. That's just not going to be the case this year," she said.

"We got in maybe a week of good farming ability before this rain came," she said. "It's going to be real tough. Some will have to replant. Near the Red River and in the Hamilton-St. Thomas area, there's still water standing in the fields. They would need a full week of no moisture to get a crop in."

Still, producers recall 2011, when planting stretched well into June, yet still produced record or near-record crops. That season, weather from mid-June to September was ideal.

"Most are hoping the weather will turn soon," Beneda said. "With the equipment out there today, we can get a lot of crop in in a hurry, if we get the right weather."

Early planting was done on higher ground, according to Beneda.

"Now, we're going around low spots, dips and draws," he said. "We're just piecing up fields. You don't like to do that, but it's necessary."

"We're jumping from field to field," O'Toole said. "I don't think Better Homes and Gardens will be interviewing us this year."

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