Balance sheet over farm scene

What a difference a year makes.

How can one year make so much difference? Here we are in the thick of spring planting season. A year ago, the biggest concern was “when or will we be able to plant anything?”

After an exceptionally wet period, this past April was dry and has allowed farmers to get into the fields in a timely manner. It seems as though April and May 2020 has us all apprehensive of the future. The level of uncertainty at planting time, or anytime during the growing season of crops or livestock for that matter, can be similar many years. A farmer or rancher having faith in the unknown is also a constant every season. It is often just a matter of what is the most concerning in that particular year.

Will Walter

Will Walter

In 2019 we had prevented planting and then the ongoing situation of the trade disruption with China. This had been a serious ordeal, especially for the soybean and pork sectors. Excess moisture and flooding created a serious transportation problem for livestock producers to ship animals and get feed to the ones they had on the farm. Farm tractors pulling trucks, walking cattle to a better road for load out may have been a difficult logistics task then.

This spring finds the roads considerably better, but grain demand and livestock processing has been altered significantly with the COVID-19 pandemic. If an elevator can’t take grain or the producer is not satisfied with the price, he or she can store it in a bin or even pile on the ground until a better marketing option comes. On-farm storage isn’t an option with most market ready livestock, and some animals have had to be euthanized.

The scenario with meat packing plant shutdowns is like there are suddendly only two or three combines running at half speed instead of 10-12 working to get the crop harvested in a week before it is worthless – but it still has to be disposed of.

It is startling that a lot of our nation’s consumers can’t comprehend how this can be happening. “Why can’t they just hold onto them? Can’t they just butcher them at home? Why can’t they just give them away?”

Livestock production, especially pork, has become a very streamlined operation. The decision to have a market ready hog deliverable on a certain date was made 10 months prior, and there are just as many more animals coming the following days and weeks ahead.

I’ve been trying to come up with comparable examples, but it’s a bit hard. Fresh fruits and vegetables come to mind. If you have a garden or fields of strawberries, cucumbers or sweet corn and you don’t have the means to process them as fast as new growth is coming, you may try to give it away or deliver it to the food pantry. That may work on a small scale because it can be consumed in that form. If a 300-pound live hog is left on a doorstep in a grocery bag, what can a 2020 urban household do with it? Multiply that by 1,000, 5,000 or 10,000, and have it be your main source of income.

In most instances, we as producers would be delighted to see meats flying off of grocery store shelves. Could this make the next year better? We know it will be different. Many industries are vulnerable to any glitch in their production chains, but they normally have ways of storing or holding the raw materials.

The financial impact of the above scenarios is certainly devastating, but the emotional toll could be catastrophic if not addressed properly. It is often said that “hail takes the heart out of a man.” In my opinion, having to destroy a healthy animal is more like taking the heart, soul and mind.

This pandemic and its many challenges will pass, as do most scenarios that seem disastrous at the time. In times that seem insurmountable, I often think of the years of toil and despair experienced by generations prior to us, such as the 1930s.

Please keep the mental health of others and yourself in check. We have many ways to communicate now besides in person. Utilize this technology in positive ways. You may need to clear a few “weeds,” such as negative news, to find what is right for you.

The windshield is larger than the rear-view mirror. The tread on tractor tires, as well as your boots, are designed to pull forward, but even the big, strong tractors need a helpful, friendly tug at times.

As the world becomes more virtual, remote and seemingly automatic, it is refreshing to note that healthy and physically able people are required to provide the necessities of our existence. Health care, emergency services, production and distribution workers are crucial.

Another year will be different. That is about the only certain thing.

For more information on the South Dakota Center for Farm and Ranch Management at Mitchell Technical Institute visit or email