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Southeastern South Dakota Farmers Slog Through a Soggy Spring

So far, it’s estimated that just 10% to 15% of soybeans and corn have been planted.

If the downtrodden Job of Biblical fame were a farmer today, he’d likely be gnashing his teeth though southeastern South Dakota’s soggy spring. This area has been an epicenter of this spring’s relentless rainfall.

“If we get another 2 to 4 inches in the next few days in southeastern South Dakota, that might be about the end of corn planting (plans) as we know it,” says Curt Hoffbeck, a Pioneer field agronomist based in Beresford, South Dakota. “It won’t be just switching maturities. It might mean switching crops or making prevented planting decisions. We had a meeting yesterday with Pioneer sales representatives across the southeastern part of South Dakota. The general consensus was that 10% to 15% of corn and 10% to 15% of soybeans had been planted. 

“It’s unprecedented,” says Hoffbeck. “When you talk to farmers who have lived there all of their lives, none have seen a situation like this. South and west of Mitchell, some gravel roads are closed. Farmers cannot get planting and fertilizer rigs into those fields, due to weight restrictions or washed-out roads and culverts.”

May 22-25 marks what typically is the cutoff date for farmers intending to plant their initial choice of comparative relative maturity (CRM) hybrids. CRM guidelines differ according to geography, he says. Pioneer normally recommends planting corn hybrids with a 110 CRM rating until May 25 for South Dakota regions from I-90 south to the Nebraska border. After May 25, Pioneer agronomists normally recommending stepping down 5 CRM levels to 105 for delays of five more days, and a subsequent 3 to 5 CRMs for five days after that. 

“It’s important to be in touch with your dealer,” he says. 

The corn planting outlook may be better, though, if less rain falls. “Then, if we get just 1 to 1.5 inches, we can keep forging ahead as things start to dry,” he says. If rain keeps falling and falling, though, prevented planting – for those who have that coverage – is also an option. 

Why Is It So Wet? 

In South Dakota, planting progress normally runs from south to north, says Hoffbeck. This year, though, it’s running in the opposite direction, from north to south.

 The stage was set last growing season, when dryness ranging across many areas from Fargo, North Dakota, to Aberdeen to Watertown in South Dakota prevailed. Even when prolific precipitation fell in the fall, soil profiles in these areas could absorb the water. 

Not so with southeastern South Dakota, where fall rains occurred on soils that had soil profiles filled by growing season precipitation. This was compounded by punishing spring rainfall. 

“Most growers in South Dakota don’t have drainage systems, with deep ditches and pattern tiling like in Minnesota, so they rely on evaporation,” Hoffbeck says. “It is a slow process. Growers west of I-29 (in southeastern South Dakota) are not moving. They need seven to 10 days of direct sun, sustained winds, and warm temperatures. To get a stretch like that doesn’t look like it will happen. There looks like there could be 40% to 50% prevented planting in quite a few areas.”

The most optimistic prediction for southeastern South Dakota is 50% corn planted of original intended acres if prolific rainfall occurs in the next few days, he adds.

The soybean picture is brighter, though. “We have planted beans on July 4 before,” Hoffbeck says.

Still, there needs to be a compelling reason for planting soybeans, such as a market rally or another federal cash infusion as farmers weigh planting vs. prevented planting. Still, there is potential in southeastern South Dakota to creep up to up to as much as 70% levels of original planting plans for soybeans, says Hoffbeck. 

Growing Season Outlook

Farmers who are fortunate enough to plant will face challenges. With last year’s late fall and prolific spring rainfall, little or no tillage has been done. Ditto for herbicide of fertilizer applications. 

“Some guys are just no-tilling into fields and plan to apply herbicide and fertilizer after the crop is planted,” Hoffbeck says. 

If at all possible, Hoffbeck recommends farmers apply a burndown herbicide before planting, especially on soybean fields. This can help get a handle on weeds and their growth going into the season, as tall weeds are more difficult to control than those 4 inches and smaller.

Hoffbeck advises farmers to monitor seedling diseases that are keyed by waterlogged and anaerobic soil conditions. Planting in less-than-desirable soil conditions can also key sidewall compaction. “When soils dry out later in the season, you can have tomahawk roots that can’t root down in August when they need to. That will hurt yield potential.”

If weather stays wet, northern corn leaf blight (NCLB) and/or gray leaf spot (GLS) can also surface and crimp yield potential. “With the down farm economy last year, lots of farmers didn’t budget money to apply fungicide,” he says.

Those who used trial products or did strips between treated and nontreated acres had good results. In corn, 15- to 30-bushel-per-acre responses occurred, and 4- to 6-bushel responses occurred in soybeans.

“If wet growing conditions continue to be wet, budget for fungicide,” Hoffbeck says.

Tough Decisions

If southeastern South Dakota farmers can plant full-season hybrids by May 25, it’s likely they can glean decent yields come fall. 

“All of our Pioneer data suggest that you can plant fuller season products from May 22-25 and finish with 10 to 12 days after black layer (reach maturity) for dry down. So, it’s not nip and tuck yet, unless we get this big rain event and it pushes us into June 1 to June 5. Then we have to start going down five to 10 CRMs just to give us the confidence that we can get a black layer before frost and still have some drying days.”

A late frost will also help matters. “In recent years, even corn planted on May 25 has gone 200 to 210 bushels (per acre) when frost came way late in November,” says Hoffbeck. “We haven’t had an early frost for a while. That could happen one of these years.”

He says plants can also ‘early up” when planted late and still make black layer in the fall. 

“Research at Purdue shows plants like soybeans and corn have a natural ability to ‘early up’ when planting late,” he says. “What Purdue data shows is that every day after May 1, the number of GDUs (growing degree units) decreases by 6.8 GDUs per day (to get to black layer). So, if you take (approximately) 7 GDUs out to May 25, that hybrid will naturally early itself up and require 175 less GDUs to get to black layer.” 

Corn planted in June can also still garner respectable yields. Hybrids planted May 30 in a 2009 to 2011 University of Minnesota study at three central and southern Minnesota sites still retained 79% of maximum grain yield compared to a mid-April planting date.

Soybeans also retain significant yield potential into June. University of Minnesota research shows soybeans planted on June 14 still retain 70% of maximum yields compared to a May 1 planting date.

Individual situations also can impact decisions. Livestock farmers may persevere and plant corn well into mid-June because they need feed and won’t have to downsize herds later this year. On the other hand, some farmers may farm more acres than for which they have drying facilities, while others may haul solely to ethanol plants. In these cases, farmers may opt to step down maturities to avoid large amounts of wet corn in the fall. 

“Every operation is unique,” Hoffbeck says

For those who are insured for it, prevented planting is an option and likely the only one in the case of sopping wet soils that have no chance to dry out.

On the other hand, some growers on the fence may opt toward planting, even with less-than-desirable yield outcomes. 

“They want to have a deck in hand when sitting at the table in case markets rally,” Hoffbeck says. “At least they can say they have a crop out there. Hopefully, the card they have is an ace and not a joker.” 

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