Everywhere I went as March was ending, the question was how is this year going to turn out with such unusual winter weather across the U.S. With farmers being antsy to go into the fields, will those early planted acres result in higher yields?

If nothing else, an early start by some farmers has helped spread out the workload, which might turn one of two ways. Farmers figuring they had enough time to do more of their own field work instead of hiring custom services is one view, or ag retailers could easily schedule additional acres for custom application through each applicator unit.

The biggest problem with the winter that we went through this year is that large areas of the country were still dry as March ended. I traveled in North Dakota where many areas were dry on the very surface but some land had subsoil moisture, probably left over from all the extended flooding of 2011.

There wasn’t much difference in temperatures from North Dakota to Mississippi during March, which I saw with my extended travel. It was plain hot, and March definitely wasn’t typical of coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb anywhere in the continental farming areas.

Will the weather change to something more normal for the summer growing season? Drought areas must have relief for grain production to meet world demand and have remaining stocks at year end.

With the type of winter we went through, it is no wonder how much interest I’ve seen by everyone in the agricultural industry with drought-tolerant crop research announcements from all the major seed developers.

There is a lot of basic research in drought and heat stress by companies other than those that are commonly known by farmers and most farmer-level seed retailers. Two examples were presenters at the CropWorld North America 2012 conference in Charlotte, N.C.

Spokesmen for Performance Plants, Inc. and Arcadia Biosciences, Inc. noted their biotech research into heat and drought stress. A contention is that heat stress accounts for six times more yield loss than actual drought when totaled across the U.S., but it is hard to separate heat and drought yield loss in catastrophic situations. Of course, both stresses are the most devastating during the flowering stage of any plant.

Being able to improve crops so that they can be grown in areas where they were not previously grown comes from standard breeding and biotechnology. At a Pioneer Hi-Bred conference at Johnston, Iowa, it was pointed out how huge the corn and soybean acres are in the Dakotas, which would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Pioneer is looking at major soybean production advancing to Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

Again coming from the CropWorld conference, there was the explanation of how eucalyptus trees that are commonly grown only in areas that never freeze are being developed to grow where cold weather will strike occasionally. This hybrid should eventually be approved for planting and provide a quickly growing feedstock for pulp mills. The economics appear that this eucalyptus variety could feed a paper mill from two-thirds less land than the current trees being grown.

It is obvious that science is progressing quite rapidly, much of it fueled by biotech, to improve crops being grown in what might be called hostile environments. In a few years, the risk of major yield loss from unusual weather like we have seen so far this year might not have people as worried about what’s ahead because of adapted crops.