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Early wheat endures

FISHER, Minn. -- The earliest spring wheat planted in the region in years looks pretty good, despite enduring below-freezing temperatures for 12 of its first 40 days, including a cool 28 degrees in the early hours Thursday.

Jon Ross and Mike Bergeron, partners in R & B Growers along the Red Lake River just east of Fisher, feel just as good about the nice-looking stand of Vantage spring wheat and its prospects.

It was St. Patrick's Day, March 17, when Mike Bergeron put the seed in the ground in this 144-acre field that stretches flat as a tabletop.

That still-winter day is the earliest agronomist and small grains expert Jochum Wiersma, researcher at the nearby University of Minnesota-Crookston, has seen spring wheat planted in his two decades in the Red River Valley. And the earliest since the 1950s, several older farmers have said.

Beating the frost

The wheat's Irish green look on Thursday has surpassed even Wiersma's expectations.

"I was surprised to see no injury," said Wiersma of regularly monitoring this field of experiment after several hard frosts, including a low of 17 degrees April 11. He did a check-up on Thursday.

"I figured there would be a little above-ground frost injury, some browning of leaves, which I wasn't worried about because the growing point still was protected," he said.

On Thursday, the wheat was at the "three-and-a-half leaf stage," Wiersma said.

The critical grain-forming "growing point" doesn't emerge until the fifth-leaf stage, which likely will take a week to 10 days, depending on how warm it gets, Wiersma said. Earlier emerged leaves can re-grow, even if killed by frost.

In this case, Wiersma thinks the overall cool weather in April gradually "hardened" this young crop so it could take a few hits of freezing temperatures that normally would zing grain plants.

Spring wheat, like winter wheat, has the millennia-old trait of storing more electrolytes in the leaves during cool stretches, Wiersma said.

"So, it can handle lower temperatures before water starts to form ice crystals and destroys cell walls and plant tissue. The electrolytes, sugars, are basically almost like an anti-freeze."

Beating previous planting dates

Bergeron and Ross rotate spring wheat, soybeans and sunflowers around their main cash crop of sugar beets, hauling to both the Crookston and East Grand Forks American Crystal processing factories.

Planting spring wheat before winter is over is rare in the northern Red River Valley and nearly a month earlier than normal. But this spring, farmers across Minnesota and North Dakota are planting at a record early rate, spurred by warm, dry conditions, state crop watchers say.

"We started planting wheat last year on May 3," Bergeron said of the near-record late start.

Ross and Bergeron say they have taken some guff from friends and neighbors about planting so early, and heard false rumors they had to re-plant the wheat.

But their educated gamble is working out and was worth it, they say.

"It came up two weeks to the day from when I planted it," Bergeron said.

The main concern now is getting some rain, he and Ross said, after the driest fall and winter on record.

They planted all their wheat by the last week in March, Bergeron and Ross said. Now, they expect to be doing their first spraying of wheat in about 10 days, at the same time they are planting soybeans, a strange juxtaposition.

The key advantage of getting spring wheat planted early in this region is making use of spring soil moisture and getting the plant mature before the heat of mid-summer, which can hamper grain-filling in the plant.

"It it turns hot in June or dries up, my partner and I will have a slight smile," Bergeron said. "If I didn't think it would pay, I wouldn't have done it."

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to