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It’s Cattails Instead of Corn in Many Northeastern South Dakota Fields

This Year’s Prolific Precipitation Brings Back Memories of 2009’s Harvest from Hell.

I had a high-school friend who I envied because he practically had a duck slough in his backyard. Really! 

It was in the “Hills,” a patch of rolling and rocky pastureland about 10 miles or so east of Langford in northeastern South Dakota. Puncturing the pastures were a smattering of sloughs, one of which buffered my friend’s farmstead. Over the years, we hunted about every type of duck that slough housed – mallards, gadwalls, teal, pintails, and redheads, wood ducks – amid muskrats and other wetland wildlife.

I lived in the “Flats” west of Langford. As farmland goes in that area, it was fairly productive, even during the dusty and drouthy 1970s of my high-school years. Stock dams stored the area’s only surface water. Even that was a stretch in late summer, as August heat would reduce the water they held to just a puddle. 

“Why couldn’t my grandfather have homesteaded up in the Hills?” I often wondered.

In retrospect, my question was just 35 to 40 years off. My dream of a duck slough in my backyard became reality from 2006 to 2011. Snow-packed winters and rampant growing-season rainfall morphed that productive farmland into a cattail-ringed duck slough. 

The prolific precipitation precipitated 2009’s harvest from hell, with excessive moisture spawning everything from white mold in soybeans to mud-pocked combines trying to harvest crops. Conditions continued to worsen into 2011, when half of my family’s 150 acres was in prevented planting. Ten-foot-high gnat clouds hovered on midsummer evenings. I still remember my then-14-year-old son racing back to our old farmstead after skipping rocks on an adjacent slough, followed by a swarm of angry black flies. And the ducks! Hunters from states as far away as Mississippi flocked to that area. 

As a 17-year-old, I might have said, “All right!” As an adult focused on income from farmland, my perspective changed. Fortunately, the 2012 drought helped snap the slough on my home farm back into productive farmland.

2009 Redux

Unfortunately, 2019 has once again morphed more farmland back into duck sloughs in northeastern South Dakota. 

“It’s like 2009 again,” says Doug Sombke, who farms with his sons near Groton, South Dakota. “Any ground marginal we could plant this spring, we could plant,” he says. Unfortunately, some of those acres are now under water. 

“At last the rain in 2009 stopped after a few weeks in the spring,” he adds. “In 2009, we were able to plant before it started up again in the fall.

In Sombke’s area, rainfall hasn’t stopped though the summer, just as it has in other areas in eastern South Dakota. 

“I talked to one farmer down by Wessington (in east-central South Dakota) who got 5½ inches a few days ago,” says Sombke. “He said, ‘Geez, Doug, we try to work around it, but we can’t do anything.’”

That’s the case where Sombke farms. “There is very little hay being made because it is just too wet,” he says. “Don’t even talk about trying to combine any small grains. The stuff that has been combined has literally had combines driving through water. Combines have been getting stuck.  f the rain keeps going into fall, we are in lots of trouble.” 

One bright spot: Pastures are looking lush and green. That coincides with an August 4 South Dakota crop report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). It rated pasture and range conditions as:
• 1% very poor
• 3% poor
• 16% fair
• 49% good
• 31% excellent

Even this, though, has a downside. “The grass is so full of water that I don’t think they (calves) are gaining as well (as in other years.),” says Sombke. “In 2009, the calves came off pasture 100 pounds lighter than normal. That said, that year we ran cattle a month longer than normal in summer pasture due to moisture and lushness.” 

Not all is bad news, though. I talked with Don VanderVorst, who manages the Claremont elevator for Full Circle Ag about 5 miles from my family’s farm. The crops that weren’t drowned out or acres that went to prevented planting have the makings of a pretty good one, he says. 

That coincided with a visit I made to my field in late June. It has its share of prevented planting spots, but the 20-inch-row corn that did get planted was just starting to canopy. 

Gil's 20-inch row corn
Gil Gullickson

It’s akin to the general picture in South Dakota. As of the August 4 USDA-NASS rating, 2% of the corn crop was very poor, 6% poor, 26% fair, 50% good, and 16% excellent. USDA-NASS ranked soybeans as 2% very poor, 7% poor, 37% fair, 42% good, and 12% excellent.

On the other hand, the crop is not made yet. It’s behind. As of August 4, the amount of corn silked was 64%, well behind 95% last year and 90% for the five-year average. Seventy-five percent of soybeans are blooming, behind last year’s 89% both last year and the five-year average.

Hail to the Crop

Even crops that did get planted and are looking good have had their share of bullets to dodge. My field ducked hail in late June by ¼ mile. 

Hail corn
Gil Gullickson

It reminded me of when my Dad would always pass on hail insurance until a sultry summer day occurred. He’d make a panicked call up to Duke Nietert, his crop insurance agent, up at the Claremont State Bank in nearby Claremont, South Dakota. Duke would come out to our farm, my dad would sign the papers, and then they’d sit and talk in the car for a couple hours about who knows what. (I’m guessing the travails of raising teenaged boys probably made its way into those conversations!) My dad always said that over several decades of farming, he had just one hail claim, and damage was minimal. 

This year? My former area isn’t the only stretch that’s been hit by hail. Sombke notes hail in one strip from Huron to Lake Preston hammered crops. “You couldn’t even tell there was a corn or bean field there,” he says. 

Hail is hail. And drowned-out crops are nothing new. I wonder, though, if something else is in the works. 

Sombke told me that what the locals call locusts are moving in. After some prodding, I figured he was talking about cicadas, which are as common where I live in Des Moines as waterhemp is in soybean fields. I have gotten so accustomed to their mid-summer chattering I scarcely notice it. Now, they’ve migrated north. 

Is All This Climate Change? 

Could be. Then again, northeastern South Dakota has had its share of flooding before. My dad used to lament a time in the late 1940s when he could only plant 19 out of 160 acres he used to farm. In those days, crop insurance—if it even existed—had to be just a shell of what it is today. I never gave much thought that the traps I used to trap pocket gophers as a youth were actually muskrat traps my uncle used during wet spells. Ironically, a scorching drought squelched crops grown on this quarter a decade later in 1959. 

Still, I go back to what Jeanne Schneider, research meteorologist at the USDA-ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma, told me in a story I wrote back in October 2014. 

“It’s not that we are seeing things that have not happened before,” says Schneider. “It’s just that they are happening more often. This increased variability is the new normal.”

Evidently, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue doesn't buy it. The result of USDA’s attempt to bury its own department’s climate change studies, according to a Politico story, is a vastly diminished ability for taxpayer-funded scientists to provide farmers and policymakers with important information about complex threats to the global food supply.

The good news is industry’s responding. Scientists are routinely developing strategies like crop varieties that better resist changes in climate and help endure weather extremes, such as Verdeca’s announcement of a new soybean trait last week. 

Meanwhile, Indigo Ag unveiled its Terraton Initiative last June. This initiative aims to sequester in soils 1 trillion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

The plan aims to eventually pay farmers in this program $15 to $20 per ton of carbon that they sequester using tools like no-till and cover crops. Payments could tally an estimated $30 to $60 per acre, with the actual amount depending on soil type and the region’s climate, says David Perry, Indigo Ag chief executive officer. 

White’s Right 

Thinking about all this reminded me of a long-ago paper one of my mentors at South Dakota State University, the irascible Everett White, wrote in the late 1980s.

 I lost it in the various moves I made through the years. I still remember, though, the late SDSU soil scientist making the point 30 years ago that although South Dakota’s climate had changed over thousands of years, we were encountering an increasingly volatile climate with sharp extremes at both edges. His exact words may vary, but he concluded his article along these lines. 

“Whether man is causing climate change can be debated until doomsday,” he wrote. “The reality is we are living in an increasingly stressful climate. You (farmers) need to be thinking about that. We in research need to be doing the same thing.” 

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