Only Thing Certain In Michigan Is Weather Uncertainty

Michigan Musings

Growers still optimistic for normal season even with delayed planting.

Published on: April 23, 2013

Donned with my winter coat and three blankets wrapped around every exposed part of my body, last Saturday I watched as my daughter's softball team proceeded to snow blow and shovel the field they were about to play on. Last year at this time I was sporting a tank top and a pretty decent tan. Ah… it's Michigan. Love it or hate it, one thing is certain, there's complete uncertainty when it comes to the weather.

After a parched 2012 summer, most farmers were rejoicing at the decent snowfall we had this winter and the early rains this spring – a good drenching to recharge the soils and groundwater reserves. But, hey, enough already! All I can say is we should have plenty of May flowers this year.

What an incredible difference a year makes. At this time last year, a good chunk of acreage had already been planted. This year, we're running a week to 2.5 weeks behind normal, according to Jeff Andresen, Michigan State University associate professor of geography and state climatologist for Michigan.

Last year, we were 4 to 6 weeks ahead of what is typically normal for the state. "The long term forecast is dryer than normal for the southern part of the state for May," Andresen says. "It suggests gradual but real changes in May, when we may ultimately see a breakdown of this upper air pattern that led to all of the abnormally cold and wet weather. The western Upper Peninsula is expecting another two feet of snow yet this week. But, in one to two weeks, I think we will see a significant break from the cold, but not abnormally above either."

The heat may help to dry out flooded areas of the state most prevalent in the west central Lower Michigan – Grand Rapids area.

Coming in to the spring, Andresen says there were two big concerns: 1. A repeat of the unusually early start that came at the cost of much of the state's fruit crop; and 2. Soil moisture levels be following last year's drought, especially for south west Lower Michigan. "The good news is that we had a mild winter early on, followed by a colder than normal temperatures and good precipitation," Andresen says. "Winter is typically our driest season, but we had good recharge over most of the state. Since late March, we look to be in good shape with excess rainfall in west-center Lower Michigan. It's helped to return the soils to normal moisture and in some areas, an insurance policy for the typically dry months of July and August."

The overall season outlook, he says, looks to average out, with warmer than normal temperatures expected for June, July and August.

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Frost risk eased
A ray of sunshine in this spring of overcast has been a cautious sigh of relief by tree fruit growers, who have – at least so far – dodged a double whammy with a cold spring that has delayed budding of trees and the potential for deadly frosts.

"Last year really made you wonder what was going on," says Bob Boehm, commodity and marketing specialist at Michigan Farm Bureau. "The fruit guys are sleeping a whole lot better than they did last year."

And, for the row croppers, "The drought is over in a lot of places --  at least upper sub soils," Boehm added. "We just need to get the temperature up. Farmers are waxing their tractors and polishing their planters, waiting for things to break."

While the delayed planting has created a shorter season, Boehm says it's not a concern at this point if farmers can get into the ground soon. He says most farmers are not swamping out seed for shorter season varieties at this point.

"If we can finish up in a month from now, corn planting will be fine," he says. "For the most part, the moisture was welcomed, with the exception of some concerns with flooding on winter wheat. We do have some spots that are drowned out, but we generally lose some every year. Typically, rain is more help than hurt."

Even for sugarbeet growers who are itching to get into the fields and who were done planting by April 12 last year. Paul Pfenninger, vice president of agriculture for Michigan Sugar Company, says 8,137 acres of sugarbeets were planted between April 4 and April 8 – just 5% of the total 160,936 acres contracted. Pfenninger says those planted acres may be holding their own and be up by the time farmers return to the fields.

Farmers have been rained out of the fields since April 8, with almost of 5 inches of rain through April 11, and then another three inches from April 15-18.

"We hope to get into the fields the first week of May if most of this week stays dry," Pfenninger says. "We're not worried yet, but next week becomes critical. In 2011, we had only 25% planted in April and we still averaged 24.1 tons per acre. Every day in May becomes more critical, but our growers plant faster than just 5 to 10 years ago – there's no panic button yet."