wheat field

A winter wheat field in Stanley County not far from Fort Pierre earlier this month.

(Photo courtesy of SD Wheat Commission)

In the past seven weeks, from April 1 until Monday, May 20, there have been only 9.2 days “suitable for field work,” across South Dakota,, according to the weekly crop progress reports from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in Sioux Falls.

The weekly reports are garnered from county crop watchers, often SDSU agricultural extension agents and are not based on scientifically weighted surveys, but are experts’ subjective evaluations. Obviously, some parts of the state have seen less rain and snow and flooding than others.

But the reports are based on experts who are driving around their counties and talking to farmers.

Only 19 percent of the state’s corn acres were planted by Sunday, May 19, when normally 76 percent would be in the ground by now, according to the NASS report.

Only 4 percent of the soybeans are planted, compared with the five-year norm of 39 percent by now, and 21 percent at this time last year.

Spring wheat planting was pegged at 70 percent, based on the subjective estimates from each county, when normally 94 percent of the wheat would be in the ground.

And the experts who do the estimating of crop progress also take into account the changing planting plans of farmers during a spring like this when so little can be done for so long.

The “final plant” date for spring wheat in the state for farmers to qualify for the full benefits of the federally-backed crop insurance program is well past. So farmers are deciding to plant something else than wheat on fields that three months ago — two years ago — they had slotted for spring wheat.

That’s a problem, said Caren Assman of the South Dakota Wheat Commission. “Everyone has a crop rotation of four years or five years, and this is really altering that crop rotation,” she said. “We really need that wheat in the rotation to help with weed control.”

Wheat, once the king of crops in the Dakotas, has become more of a rotation crop, not so much grown for cash.

Between winter wheat and spring wheat, less than 2 million acres typically are planted in the state, while soybeans and corn each take up plus or minus 6 million acres each.

Assman said many farmers unable to get spring wheat into wet fields in time for the crop to do well and to qualify for the crop insurance program, will turn to corn, which can be planted and harvested later.

“We are standing in water,” said Nancy Johnson on Monday. She owns and runs a ranch and farm north of Buffalo in Harding County with her husband, while also running the Nation’s Center News weekly out of her home.

“It snowed this last weekend. On Friday and Saturday we got, at Camp Crook, 10 inches of snow and we had an inch of rain before it snowed. The snow melted fast.”

For them, having the range and pastures so wet and green is a good thing where drought normally is the threat.

But they have crops to get in, too, Johnson said.

“Thankfully we just got everything planted before this stuff hit,” she said of the oats and alfalfa they plant in the spring.

The winter wheat they planted last fall should make pretty good hay,which is what they grow it for, to feed their 500-cow operation, she said.

Farmers east of the Missouri River are a little more impatient, a little more behind the normal pace of spring planting.

“It’s been a really challenging year,” a farmer from north of Pierre told the Hughes County Commission on Monday about farming, saying in a deliberately understated way to make his point.

Farmers across the state have had a lot of down time watching rivers flow ever since the big blizzards of mid-March and mid-April messaged that this would be a late spring.

On March 29, the NASS office released its key spring planting intentions report, showing the state’s farmers planned, then, to put in 6 million acres of corn, up 13 percent from 2018, and 5.2 million acres of soybeans, down 8 percent from last year.

Last year, South Dakota farmers raised a record 257 million bushels of soybeans.

They said they planned to plant 1.02 million acres of spring wheat, down 3 percent from March 2018 intentions.

Winter wheat plantings last fall for harvest this summer were 850,000, up 2 percent from fall l2017; but now as spring shows the crop, NASS reports about 720,000 acres of winter wheat are expected to be harvested.

Since then things have been wet and wetter.

Pierre, for example, has received 10.57 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1, a full 4.61 inches above the 30-year average for the period. 

Farmers are not banking on warm, sunny days anytime soon.

After a long spell of cool, wet weather that has delayed and changed planting plans, South Dakota farmers can look forward to, well, more of the same, short-term and longer-term, the experts are saying.

Not only will wet, rainy conditions continue across the state to the end of May, it may be a season-long trend, Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension state climatologist wrote in a recent news release.

She said there’s more wetness coming, based on the June Climate Outlook released May 17 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center.

“Potentially, east-central and southeastern South Dakota could see as much as 3 inches of rainfall over the next two weeks,” Edwards said. “June’s climate outlook favors both wetter and colder conditions.”

The good news is that drought does not seem to be in the cards.

Edwards says climate computer models increasingly point to a very non-drought summer state-wide.

“For the summer months of June, July and August, the continuation of this cooler and wetter pattern seems more likely across South Dakota,” Edwards said.

Missouri loves company, perhaps: The area that is favored to be cooler than average stretches north to south through the Central U.S., from the Canadian border to Texas.

“Odds are leaning towards wetter than average conditions across almost all of the lower 48 states,” Edwards wrote.

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