On Monday, Lisa Richardson, longtime executive director of South Dakota Corn which represents farmers and the corn industry, toured the Poet ethanol plant near Chancellor, southwest of Sioux Falls.
It’s about the size of the new Ringneck Energy ethanol plant in Onida that just began production this spring.
Such tours are part of her job because a good chunk of the state’s corn crop gets fed into ethanol plants. This is a big reason South Dakota’s corn growing and consuming has increased so much in the the 22 years she’s run the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council.
The two groups represent those who produce the corn and those who use it.
There are about 12,500 farmers who grow corn in the state, about 1,500 of them belong to the Corn Growers Association and some were on the tour Monday.
What really grabbed their attention was getting to and from the ethanol plant, which is right in some of the worst wet conditions that kept so many farmers out of so many fields in South Dakota this year.
This was the record year for “prevented plant acres” nationwide, with farmers saying they couldn’t get the crop in on 19.4 million acres, the most since the USDA’s Farm Service Agency began reporting them in 2007. This represents a full 17.5 million acres more than U.S. farmers reported last year, USDA reported on Aug. 12.
But nobody had more prevented plant acres than South Dakota farmers.
They reported 3.86 million acres as prevented planting.
That means South Dakota farmers accounted for 20 percent of the nation’s prevented-plant acres.
And in a strange mathematical coincidence, the 3.86 million acres too wet and flooded for farmers to plant also adds up to about 20 percent of the state’s total acres in crops, year in and year out.
Corn was the big loser: 2.85 million acres that the state’s farmers intended to grow corn ended up declared “prevented planting,” USDA says.
Prevented planting of soybeans was reported on 850,864 acres; for wheat, the number is 126,403.
Minnesota had 1.17 million acres of prevent-plant, nearly all of it, just short of a million acres, for corn.
North Dakota had 830,650 prevented planting acres; 574,197 of them involving corn not being planted.
The prevented planting program qualifies farmers for payments through the crop insurance program.
The worst of it in South Dakota was the southeast section of the state, Richardson said.
She drove by some of it on Monday.
“Nothing but weeds growing.” she said. “We still have ditches full of water.”
This year looks to be a huge setback in South Dakota’s corn production.
In the past 30 years, the state’s corn acres increased by about 80 percent from about 3.5 million acres to 6.2 million in 2013, largely because of the ethanol industry.
This year, in March, the state’s farmers told federal surveyors they intended to put 6 million acres of corn in the ground, a significant increase from 2018.
But the snows, rains and flooding across the key corn-growing area in the east part of the state mean that by June 28, the count was 4.8 million acres of corn planted, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported.
It’s not clear how much of the decrease involves prevented planting of corn, because some acres were planted to other crops; and the March figures were simply farmers’ projections.
Still this is an historic decline in corn acres, Richardson said.
“We have never seen a weather pattern like this,” Richardson said. “It was incredibly wet last fall and we struggled to get the harvest out. We are incredibly wet right now.”
State climatologists said that, like many areas of the country, much of South Dakota saw its wettest 12 month period from last fall through this summer.
The effects still are sitting on the ground to see, Richardson said as she traveled across the southeast part of the state on Monday
“We still have water up to the top of ditches,” she said. “Fields are full of weeds.”
But the fields are still too wet for farmers to run sprayers across them to kill the weeds. Much less put in a cover crop to protect the soil, Richardson said.
“One farmer today said, ‘We are having 100-year floods every other year.’ The weather pattern appears quite dramatic.”
Trent Kubik lives north of Winner and farms with his family in Lyman, Tripp and Gregory counties, including a beef cow/calf operation that feeds the calves up to toward market weights. His no-till farming relies on spraying chemicals for weed control.
Having livestock to feed gives more options when a crop doesn’t turn out right: it can be used as pasture for cattle or the crop can be baled or cut for feed for livestock, instead of grain for cash, he said.
“Many of us around here hadn’t used prevent-plant before,” he said. His farm reported prevented planting on about 10 percent of the crop acres, which this year were corn and alfalfa.
“We didn’t grow soybeans this year.”
Although beans can be an option when conditions aren’t good to get corn in because beans can be planted later, that didn’t work this year, Kubik said.
“We didn’t get in even with soybeans,” he said of the wet conditions.
Now he and his family are figuring what to do with the acres that didn’t get seeded. “The biggest concern is weed control,” he said on Monday. “The plan at this point is to kind of move to a fast-growing grazing crop, like sorghum, a crop for the cows. But we had an inch of rain last night so we had to push it off again.”.
Kubik said the prevented-plant payments “are a bare-minimum.”
“By the time we pay our rent, and spraying and putting in cover crop, we’ve used up the prevent-plant check,” he said.
But his region has been spared the worst of the wet weather, he said.
In the eastern part of the state, it’s more critical, Richardson said.
“Our biggest concern is the soil health of the land, in getting it ready for next year,” Richardson said.
Soil and crop scientists say that farm land needs something biological going on in the dirt to stay healthy, she said.
“Farmers need something growing on it. But they just have not been able to get out there.” ‘’