University of Minnesota Extension Small Grain Specialist
The 2012 growing season will likely be remembered as pleasantly surprising by most. The surprise was largely a function of the attained yields in spite of drought conditions not seen in 50-plus years.
In many parts of the state the last substantive rains fell in late August of 2011 and a very dry fall and winter followed. Snow cover was light, if not completely absent, for most of the winter and temperatures were generally mild to very mild by Minnesota standards.
An early start
With record breaking warmth the first fields in Minnesota were seeded by the middle of March and by St. Patrick’s Day, spring wheat was seeded as far north as Fisher, Minn. By the end of March already 18% of the oats, 6% of the spring barley, and 3% of the spring wheat were planted. A far cry from the previous spring when planting didn’t start in earnest until nearly 6 weeks later. Field work continued at record pace in the first two weeks of April and by mid April, 77% of the oats, 56% of the spring wheat, and 35% of the spring barley were planted.
With unusually warm temperatures, emergence was equally fast and by mid April already 19% of planted oats had emerged. Most of the wheat, barley and oats were planted by the end of April; well ahead of the five-year average and probably a record setting pace altogether.
At the same time, 54% of the state’s top soil was rated short or very short of topsoil moisture and 68% of the subsoil moisture supplies were also rated as being either short to very short. Timely rains and thunderstorms provided some drought relief in many parts of the state in the first two weeks of May. Precipitation remained well below average; however, and especially in the northwestern portion of the state topsoil moisture continued to dwindle. Consequently, USDA’s June yield prognosis had Minnesota’s spring wheat yield pegged at 50 bushels per acre 2 bushels less than 2011 in spite of the very early planting date.
Some rare pest problems were encountered early in the growing season. First, a very early influx of viruliferous aphids in early April caused an outbreak of Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) in southern Minnesota. These early infections caused severe stunting of the crop, more common in oats, the symptoms of the virus infection are seldom, if ever, seen in spring sown wheat or barley in Minnesota and tends only to occur when plants are infected early.
By late April, aster leaf hoppers began to migrate into the State. Aster leaf hoppers can transmit the aster yellows phytoplasma. Aster yellows (AY) cause symptoms very similar to BYDV in oats, wheat and barley and are very difficult to detect. Although not confirmed in most cases, it is very likely that both diseases caused substantial yield losses. The spring barley yield trials on the St. Paul campus, for example, were totally lost as a result of the early season BYDV and AY infections.
Later in the season, the continued dry conditions, low dew points, and cooler temperatures limited the development of all fungal diseases except tan spot and stripe rust. Stripe rust, not normally seen in the state, reached high levels in some fields. Leaf rust was mostly absent while Fusarium head blight was only found in the far northwestern counties of Minnesota where incidence and severity were very low, especially when compared to 2011.
Producers were pleasantly surprised by the yields they encountered when combining started by mid-July. By August first, already over half of the wheat, 67% of the oats, and 75% of the barley had been harvested. Again, a record setting pace and well ahead of the five-year averages for all three crops. In turn, the USDA has pegged the state’s average yields at 57 bushels for spring wheat in its September summary. This is well above its own June estimates, 11 bushels higher than 2011, and only 1 bushel below the state record.
The overall quality of the wheat, barley and oats crop is good. The Regional HRSW Crop Quality Report points toward a slightly below average test weight but a crop with similar grain protein content and much larger kernels when compared to 2011. Spring wheat acreage declined 150,000 acres from 2011 to just 1.4 million acres planted in 2012. While oat acreage increased some 10% to 190,000 acres across the state, winter wheat acreage nearly doubled to 60,000 acres. Barley acreage also increased by nearly a third to 115,000 acres. Despite the early spring small grain acreage continued its overall decline in favor of corn. The Corn Belt steadily marches further north into territories thought to be too far north for substantive corn production even a decade ago.