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FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - North Dakota and Minnesota girded for the worst flooding in years, which could prompt farmers to cut spring wheat plantings by as much as 500,000 acres in the four main wheat-producing U.S. states.
Fargo, N.D. was expecting a 41-foot crest on the Red River by Saturday that would break a 112-year-old record.
Farmers still able to seed a crop will look hard at soybeans, which can be planted as late as early June, experts said.
"This isn't good news for wheat," Joel Ransom, an agronomist in cereal crops at North Dakota State University, said over the phone as he heaved sandbags onto a dike at the Red River in Fargo.
Due to lower wheat prices, the North Dakota Wheat Commission already was expecting wheat plantings from North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota to drop sharply to 12.3 million acres from 12.8 million last year.
That spring wheat reduction may now double, with another 500,000 former wheat acres planted instead with later-seeding crops like soybeans, sunflowers and dry beans, or not planted at all, said Jim Peterson, marketing director of the farmer-run commission.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has predicted that at least 1 million acres in North Dakota will go unseeded this spring.
"Producers want to grow a crop, that's how they generate their income, but if you just perpetually get stuck all the time or you mud a crop in ... it's like playing in the mud when you're a kid," Peterson said. "It gets hard and packed and pretty poor (for) germination."
Losing 500,000 wheat acres to flood and crop switches is a realistic estimate, said Rob Proulx, an agronomy lecturer at University of Minnesota in Crookston, Minn. near the east bank of the Red River.
Wheat planting in North Dakota generally needs to start by mid-April, while soybean seeding can wait an extra month, Peterson said.
Corn planting usually begins by May 5, but there are still roughly 400,000 unharvested acres in North Dakota and Minnesota, creating another delay for those farmers seeding new crop. Some farmers may switch to corn that has a shorter growing season, Peterson said.
The long-range forecast is no source of comfort.
March through May is expected to be wetter and cooler than last year, said Tim Hanagan, an analyst for Alaron Trading.
"Because of the supply and demand ratio and economics it makes sense for farmers in the northern tier of states to switch to soybeans," Hanagan said.
Wheat has been a popular crop choice in the northern half of North Dakota, with corn and soybeans dominating the south, Ransom said.
In Fargo, volunteers from as far away as Minneapolis scrambled to raise dikes another three feet to hold the river back after the crest forecast rose.
Western North Dakota, out of the reach of the Red River, is also fighting floods because of ice jams on the Missouri River. The number of residents forced to evacuate statewide was not available on Thursday.
The National Weather Service was predicting less than an inch of snow for Fargo Thursday, but no precipitation for the next four days.
North of the border in the Canadian province of Manitoba, the Red River's crest isn't expected until April 5 at the earliest, but ice jams on the river have flooded or threatened 50 homes north of the city of Winnipeg. The ice jam broke up Thursday morning, but government officials said the ice could jam again if it moves.
Winnipeg, home to 633,000 residents, is protected by an expanded floodway system that channels excess water around the city. The Manitoba government is considering evacuation plans for two communities with a combined population of 855.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Sam Nelson in Chicago and Rich Mattern in Fargo, North Dakota; writing by Rod Nickel; Editing by David Gregorio