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Farmers forced to make tough decisions with water-logged fields

Flooded farm fields are leaving farmers with a tough decision to make about planting their crops. Tim Middagh / Forum News Service

WORTHINGTON, Minn. — Paul Henning of rural Okabena is marking the 50th anniversary of his farming career, and while the milestone might be worth celebrating, Henning and farmers across the Midwest have thus far found little to celebrate this spring.

Mother Nature continues to open up the clouds, dumping more rain on already water-logged farm fields.

“Wet, wet, wet,” Henning said of his farm fields Wednesday morning, May 29, as rain continued to fall. Normally, the crop and livestock farmer would have all of his corn and soybeans in the ground by now, but this year — and recent years — have been anything but normal.

Instead of checking on crop progress, Henning drove around Wednesday morning capturing photographs of his flooded fields. He then went straight to his insurance agent, showed him the photos and discussed options.

Henning can either plant corn at this late date and assume great risk through harvest with reduced insurance coverage, or opt to declare prevent plant. The latter means he can collect fully on his crop insurance, but he won’t be able to plant a cash crop on the land. Leaving the soil exposed isn’t a good idea, though, as that could lead to weed growth, fallow syndrome and erosion concerns.

Henning’s best option is to seed cover crops.

“That’s kind of the route, I think, on what’s left,” he said, noting he has about 25% of his corn crop yet to plant. “It’s really hard to tell when it will dry up.”

Deadlines for crop insurance were pushing farmers to think and act quickly this week, as the crop insurance cutoff for southern Minnesota was Friday for corn planting. They can still get crop insurance up to 25 days after that date, but it won’t be full coverage. The crop insurance cutoff for soybeans in southern Minnesota is June 10.

Planting has been a challenge across southern Minnesota and much of the Midwest this spring. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Minnesota Crop Progress report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 66% of the state’s corn crop was planted as of Sunday — eight days behind last year, when 91% of the crop was planted. Just 35% of soybeans were planted as of Sunday — compared to 75% a year ago. Topsoil moisture supplies were rated 53% surplus statewide.

Investment made, corn will go in

Rural Bigelow farmer and Pioneer seed dealer Matt Russell said Friday morning it sounds like most farmers will try to plant their corn next week if they can.

“To get the seed in the ground and, if it’s a failure, crop insurance is still going to pay more than prevent plant is going to pay,” Russell said. “There are some guys with herbicide and nitrogen on the field, and that can only go to corn so they really don’t have a choice.

“There’s some investments into the corn crop already — without having the seed in the ground,” he added.

With a more positive market forecast for corn than soybeans, Russell said he’s hearing from farmers who want to switch from soybeans to corn on some acres.

“If they can harvest a shorter crop of $5 corn, they’re still going to make more money (than) soybeans,” Russell said. With plenty of 91- to 93-day maturity corn on hand, he said farmers have been swapping out their longer-season varieties to the shorter season options.

Weather Service says drier days ahead

Mike Gillispie, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., said the next week or two is expected to trend toward more normal temperatures, with a few days potentially warmer than normal.

“For the most part, it’s going to be dry,” he said, adding that there are chances (30% to 40%) for thunderstorms early Saturday morning and late Tuesday night. “It’s not going to be 100 square miles or four states getting over an inch at a time.”

A little wind with temperatures ranging from 75 to 85 degrees will certainly help to dry up the fields so farmers can get back to planting.

“It’s going to be trending in the right direction,” Gillispie said.

Planting delayed across the Corn Belt

Corn planting across the nation’s top 18 corn producing states is behind schedule in all states but Texas and Pennsylvania, the USDA reported Tuesday. Minnesota, at 66% planted, is faring better than several other top producing states, including Illinois (35% planted), Indiana (22%), Ohio (22%), South Dakota (25%) and Wisconsin (46%). Iowa farmers had 76% of their corn crop planted as of Sunday, down from 95% a year ago, while North Dakota farmers were at 63% of corn acres planted, compared to 83% a year ago.

Liz Stahl, University of Minnesota Extension crops specialist in Worthington, said farmers need to be in contact with their insurance provider about their options.

If farmers chose not to take prevent plant on their corn acres, Stahl said there is a 25-day window in which they can still plant corn, but without full insurance coverage.

“We’re talking planting corn in June, which is not a great thing in our state. It’s a high-risk deal,” Stahl said. “It’s tough decisions each farmer needs to make.”