Spring planting slow

Planting season is here, but travel down any country road in eastern South Dakota and you’ll notice the farming equipment is absent.

What’s the hold up on spring planting? An extremely wet and cool spring has made getting in the fields next to impossible for many.

Ask any farmer how planting is going, and you’ll hear similar answers.

“The planter is ready to go, and so is the sprayer, but we haven’t driven in a gate yet,” said Peggy Greenway, a farmer from Mount Vernon, S.D. “Last year at this time, we had just finished planting corn.”

“We haven’t even hooked up the planter to see if it works yet; there’s no need; we are super wet!” said Collin Gronseth, a farmer from Dimock, S.D.

“We are two weeks behind normal, and after another inch of rain, a lot of the fields will need at least one or two weeks of sunshine and wind before we can plant,” said Joe Landeen, a farmer from Beresford, S.D.

“We did get some wheat and pasture fertilized before this last rain, but nothing is planted,” said Carol Millan, a farmer from Mitchell, S.D. “In addition to the fields being wet, so many of the rural roads are closed or are too soft for equipment to pass through.”

“We haven’t started on corn yet because we can never get more than one day of sunshine in a row,” said Tom Davis, a farmer from Elkton, S.D.

“We don’t have a seed in the ground, nor will we be thinking about it for a while,” said LeAnn Moe, a farmer from Alexandria, S.D.

Farmers were already feeling the pinch in 2019 with depressed commodity prices and an ongoing trade war that is leaving many producers vulnerable; however, two back-to-back years of excessive moisture, long winters and cool temperatures has made raising crops even more challenging.

“Many farmers are a couple weeks (or more in some cases) behind their typical field operations for this time of year,” said Sara Bauder, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension agronomy field specialist. “However, in a few areas there might be slight progress between rains here and there, but for the vast majority, it seems little to no fieldwork has happened. Additionally, soil temperatures were slow to warm up this year and did not reach the recommended 50°F average (over several days) for corn until more recently.”

Referencing the most recent USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) South Dakota Crop Progress and Condition report, dated May 12, 2019, Bauder said, “Corn was only at 4 percent planted; that’s behind 19 percent last year, but 2018 was wet in many areas too. It’s way behind the five-year average of 54 percent at this time. They aren’t even reporting on soybeans yet. Small grains were really at a disadvantage this year as the early rains pushed planting back or made it impossible due to it getting too late and still being too wet for planting. Spring wheat is reported at 46 percent planted. Last year was 75 percent by this report, and the five-year average is 88 percent. Oats are in a similar situation with 37 percent planted; last year was 74 percent and the five-year average is 87 percent by this date. Meanwhile, pasture and range conditions rate 2 percent poor, 28 percent fair, 51 percent good and 19 percent excellent.”

“The two-week forecast is looking cool and wet,” said Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension state climatologist. “We’ll have a few days of sunshine this week, so the window of opportunity is pretty short. According to the Mesonet Network, which monitors soil down to 40 inches, all of the station in Eastern South Dakota are showing very wet to saturated conditions, especially in the southeast part of the state. This holds true for last fall, as well, so we ended 2018 very wet, and conditions haven’t been able to dry out since.

Edwards says looking at previous years, the long-term trends show wetter springs in eastern South Dakota, as much as 20-30 percent wetter compared to 60 years ago.

“South Dakota is getting wetter faster than anywhere else in the country, according to date from the National Climate Assessment, released in November 2018,” said Edwards. “We are seeing bigger swings in weather, too. In 2011, we experienced a record 500-year flood, but by 2012, the state was in severe drought. In general, we are seeing warmer winters, too, which can create more disease and pest problems.”

Morale may be down for farmers in the region, but at the very least, most are in the same boat, facing the same challenges.

“This is the third slowest start to corn planting since the early 1990s, and that applies to the entire Corn Belt,” said Edwards. “The entire region is dealing with a slow start to planting due to excess water. The James River will remain flooded for at least a month or two, and the Mississippi River is flooding, too.”

For livestock producers, 2018 and 2019 were marked with cruel forces of Mother Nature, due to flooding, blizzards and extreme cold temperatures.

“We hear of producers wanting to change their calving dates, but it doesn’t matter if you calved in January or May this year, there was never a good time to have newborn calves on the ground,” said Edwards.

Even as fields typically seeded with corn and soybeans now look more like wetlands and a duck’s paradise, there’s always a silver lining.

“Winter wheat is looking pretty decent right now with 43 percent fair and 50 percent good,” said Edwards. “In western South Dakota, grass and pastures should do pretty well this year. Looking at soil moisture data in central South Dakota, top soil has recovered pretty well this spring. In western South Dakota, we expect more favorable wet conditions. The opportunity is there for a good growing season, assuming they can get into the field.”

Yet, for many, getting soybeans and corn planted won’t be possible in 2019, so producers may be wise to look for other options.

“Farmers have a few options to consider,” said Bauder. “If they have insurance, they may be able to take prevented planting if the deadlines pass and they are still unable to plant. They can also plant during the ‘late planting periods’ following crop deadlines, but they will only be able to collect a portion of their insurance if they plant during that period depending on their specific situation and the date of planting.”

Bauder says producers might consider planting forage crops, cover crops, alternative grain crops or even looking at grazing opportunities. However, she urges producers to be mindful of the conditions of their land leases and crop insurance restrictions.

“If growers use crop insurance (likely it will be prevent plant in this case), there will be specific stipulations they need to follow, which will be used to guide decisions on what to do next,” she explains. “For example, you cannot receive your whole payout of prevent plant if you graze or hay cover crops before Nov. 1 (that are planted after the final plant dates for the respective intended crop). In this case, growers should consider what crops they could plant that will meet their needs and could still be viable as a forage after Nov. 1, if that’s in their list of goals. If they simply want to keep the soil covered and build soil health, a mix of warm (and a few cool) season annuals might be a nice alternative. We strongly suggest farmers get something out on their fields, whether that be a cover crop, forage, or alternative grain crop. It is best to keep soils covered to build carbon and keep a living root growing to promote soil health.”

Wet and cool conditions are limiting farmers today, and unfortunately, the long-term outlook is wet and cool into the summer months.

“We are expecting wet conditions through mid-summer, and in addition to that, we don’t see a strong warming trend either,” said Edwards. “This doesn’t make for good drying conditions, but on the bright side, April moisture is a strong indicator of pasture growth, so producers may enjoy a nice grazing season for livestock, at the very least.”