South Dakota crops are in survival mode enduring 90-degree temperatures and drought conditions

Rebekah Tuchscherer
Sioux Falls Argus Leader
Gaylon Johnson's sweet corn blows in the hot, dry wind on June 10, 2021.

In his 35 years of farming, it’s never become so hot so early.

Gaylon Johnson is a 60-year-old farmer whose corn and soybean fields are just outside of Harrisburg. While ongoing drought made for early and easy planting, a series of scorching 90-degree days and no end to the heat in sight has both farmers and experts worried.

“If we get timely rain, we could have a super good crop,” Johnson said. “But if we miss out, things could go south in a hurry.”

According to the National Weather Service, the Sioux Falls and Aberdeen areas are expected to maintain temperatures in the 80s over the weekend with slight chances of thunderstorms both Saturday and Sunday.

Across the board, most South Dakota crops have emerged earlier than in previous years, according to the most recent report from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Corn emerged is currently at 96%, near 97% last year and ahead of 87% for the five-year average.

Ninety-four percent of soybeans have emerged, ahead of 83% last year and 73% for the five-year average. 

Jordon Andernacht, the CHS location manager in Worthing, South Dakota, said drought conditions in the spring helped farmers get their crops in earlier than a typical year; however, a continued lack of rain in addition to hot weather could negatively affect yields later this fall.

“Mother Nature is the biggest factor in crop production,” Andernacht, said. “There’s not a lot a person can do but wait for rain.”

Gaylon Johnson's grain bins sit just down the road from his home in Harrisburg, South Dakota.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of South Dakota is undergoing moderate to severe drought conditions, including the southeastern corner of the state.

Right now, small grains like wheat and oats are flowering, or in the midst of pollination, Sara Bauder, an agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension said. Pollination determines grain fill, and if moisture doesn't arrive soon, farmers might not see yields that they'd otherwise expect.

Row crops, like corn and soybeans, don’t pollinate until later in the summer, which means they can stand the heat a little longer, Bauder said.

But right now, most crops are in survival mode, prioritizing deeper root systems to find what subsoil moisture they can, as opposed to branching out.

The same can be said for hay and alfalfa — grasses can’t grow back as quickly without much needed moisture.

And while some farmers have irrigation systems to water their crops, others, like Harrisburg’s Johnson, don’t. Instead, they keep hope alive and control the things they can, like pests and diseases.

Rebekah Tuchscherer is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader. Follow her on Twitter @r2sure.