Sliding prices, trade uncertainties, falling incomes, continued flooding and a wet spring that has delayed the planting season.
It’s not the start of the growing year that Wisconsin farmers hoped for.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture weekly crop report for Wisconsin, released May 6, shows spring tillage and planting lagging well behind the five-year average. Colder-than-normal temperatures and rainy weather only allowed for 2.6 days of fieldwork the previous week, the report said.
Midweek showers that dropped anywhere from a half-inch of rain on Milwaukee to 1.5 inches in parts of western Wisconsin will do little to improve that statistic for the next crop report.
“There’s a lot of people that haven’t even started planting yet across the state,” said Doug Rebout, president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
Rebout, from Janesville, is more fortunate than some. He said he has about 700 acres of soybeans and 1,100 acres of corn planted so far; he’s about half done.
“We got a bunch of rain,” he said. “There are lots of puddles in the fields right now.”
As of May 5 the statewide corn planting was 7 percent complete, four days behind 2018 and eight days behind average. The five-year average for corn planting for this time of the year is 24 percent. The southwest part of Wisconsin had the best amount planted at 19 percent. Other districts report only 1 percent and cold soil conditions.
Steve Okonek, UW-Extension agricultural educator in Trempealeau County, said corn planting typically begins in late April. But only a few acres have been planted in his county. Many farmers are still hauling manure or spreading fertilizer as they prepare their fields.
It’s been a wet winter and now a wet spring, with the weekly crop report showing a 40 percent surplus in the topsoil moisture. The National Weather Service in Green Bay reports after this past Wednesday’s .88 inches of rain the precipitation total for the year is 11.92 inches – 4.53 inches more than normal.
Farmers have now passed the statistically significant date of May 10, which is when one typically loses yield if the corn hasn’t been planted, Okonek said. But much depends on the weather during the entire growing season. A warm and moist summer can compensate for the lost yields.
“Yields can be very good even if corn is planted at the end of May,” he said. “Every year is different.”
Rebout said, “It’s the weather, something we can’t control. The longer it takes to get the crops in, the more it affects our yields. There is the main concern.”
Wet weather and flooding have been concerns in the agricultural community across the Midwest since a major winter storm in March caused flooding in key farm states. Farm Market ID, an agricultural strategy and marketing firm, said this past month almost 150,000 growers in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas – growers who plant 16 million acres of corn, soybeans and wheat – were impacted by the flooding, which also damaged grain bins.
But commodity prices decreased this past week after weather forecasters predicted drier weather for May 13-17 across the Midwest. That would allow farmers to put more crops in the ground. Trade tensions between the United States and China in addition to a large surplus also are depressing prices.
A growing concern is the availability of fertilizer. Extended flooding along the Mississippi River has closed the lock-and-dam navigation system. That has halted the flow of crops downriver and fertilizer upriver, the La Crosse Tribune reported this past week.
“Everybody’s sitting on the edge of their seats,” said Tim Clemens, CEO of Allied Cooperative. “It hasn’t affected us yet, but the threat is there.”
Todd Servais, board president of the La Crosse County Farm Bureau, told the Tribune that the inability of farmers to deliver on grain contracts will cause more financial pressure. Many farmers rely on the income from those sales to help pay for spring planting.
While much of the spring planting is focused on the estimated 3.9 million acres of Wisconsin corn, some farmers are dealing with extensive winterkill of alfalfa. The perennial forage crop that is key to dairy farms is susceptible to die-off when it’s subjected to extremely cold temperatures like much of the state experienced this winter.
“There’s a fair amount of winter kill and winter injury out there,” Okonek said, describing it as hit and miss across Trempealeau County. “One field looks good and across the road another one is injured.”
Farmers who haven’t assessed their alfalfa stands will want to wait until there is about 6 inches of growth, Okonek said. Often there is enough strength in the root to allow the plant to grow 3 to 6 inches – and then it dies back.
Fields of alfalfa more than a year old will need to be rotated with another crop, he said. A field planted in 2018 could still be reseeded if done early enough.
Rebout said he spoke with a farmer who told him that he had only 20 of his 450 acres of alfalfa survive.
“There will be more corn and bean acres going in, and the price of hay is going to soar,” Rebout said.
But even with the planting delay and the other challenges this year, farmers remain the eternal optimists, he said.
“The combination of sitting in the tractor and going across those fields … it just renews you for the upcoming year,” he said. “Plus advances in equipment and technology allow farmers to catch up on planting really fast.
“When it is time to go, we can get a lot done in a hurry. But the longer we wait, the more anxious we get.”