South Dakota farmers battle spring rain as they try to get into fields to plant crops

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum
Puddles form between tire tracks and tilled earth during an eastern South Dakota rainstorm Wednesday. South Dakota fields can tell two different stories this spring — one of excessive moisture to the northeast and one of anomalous dryness in the southeast.

Three years into a drought, South Dakotans usually welcome whatever rain they can get.

But ask farmers in the northeast corner of the state their thoughts about the weather now, and you're going to hear them bemoan all of the moisture.

May is planting season in South Dakota. Farmers are usually running seeders across their fields around this time, but recent rains and sporadic spring snowstorms are delaying their efforts to plant corn.

Eastern South Dakota counties have various levels of soil moisture, which can affect planting. Compared to the historical average, the northeastern corner of the state is exceptionally wet while the southeastern region is abnormally dry.

Farmers are of two minds when it comes to May precipitation, according to DaNita Murray, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

DaNita Murray, executive director of South Dakota Corn

"I talked to a couple of folks yesterday. It's spotty," Murray said earlier this week. "The rain is great, but at this point on the calendar, there could be a slight delay" in planting.

Murray said she has heard anecdotes of fields in eastern South Dakota with as much as 3 inches of standing water and even more in northeastern counties.

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Too much of a good thing

Travis Strasser runs a farming operation just south of Wilmot in Roberts County and has been trying to get his corn in.

How's it going?

"It's not going," he said, laughing.

Strasser is on the other side of the moisture spectrum compared to those still dealing with drought conditions. His lands are oversaturated to the point he can't even get his equipment in the fields without getting stuck.

A map of the U.S. showing the calculated soil moisture anomaly—the historical average of soil moisture compared to the daily measurement, or the measured soil moisture for May 9, 2022. The northeast corner of South Dakota is exceptionally wet and untenable for farming, while the southeast region of the state is abnormally dry.

"We've been extremely wet since last fall," Strasser said. "We received over 25 inches of rain between July and ... Easter."

Since the holiday, he estimates he's received between a half-inch and an inch of rain every week.

Typically, there's a short window for planting corn between late-April and late-May. It is not unheard of for farmers to work late hours when they have the chance to get their seeds in the soil.

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"Every growing season you only ever get one chance to grow a crop, so it's really important to be timely in your planting. You only get one chance to do it right," Strasser said.

However, wet fields are not tenable to farming. Slow-moving equipment tends to get bogged down and even stuck in the mud, and seeds have a hard time sprouting in standing water, according to Murray.

Strasser said only 5% of his corn crop has been planted, and some producers in his area haven't even started.

In other parts of northern South Dakota east of the Missouri River, some farmers are wondering if they are even going to be able to plant their corn.

Flood fields lie fallow Wednesday near Travis Strasser's farm south of Wilmot. Strasser said farmers in the northeastern corner of the state have been almost entirely prevented from planting corn due to consistent spring rain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest field crops report issued Tuesday shows that only 11% of corn is planted in South Dakota, well below 60% at this time last year and about a third of the five-year average.

In North Dakota, only 1% of corn has been planted, according to the report. That's compared to 33% at this time last year and a five-year average of 18%.

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"You hate to see the fields sit fallow, but there's not a lot you can do if it's too wet," Strasser said

Most farmers have a contingency in the form of crop insurance, which allows them to recoup a portion of the projected revenue of their total harvest. Producers must give their insurance agency advance notice by their "prevent plate date," an assigned date that varies by county and by crop. After that, the "late planting period" begins and insurance coverage gradually decreases as time passes.

Of course, farmers are free to continue planting late into the season, but crop yields tend to decrease once the optimal window passes. Subsisting on crop insurance is not a profitable long-term plan, so most farmers gamble on late planting in hopes of seeing the weather improve.

"No one wants to think about prevent plant," Strasser said. "We all want to grow a crop — that's how we're programmed as farmers — but we might have to."

More: Drought planning: why landowners need contingencies in place this spring

Some producers are also bound by futures contracts with which a predetermined number of bushels of corn must be sold by a certain date. Planting delays can prevent farmers from fulfilling their part of the agreement. That could lead the buyer to obtain repayment through legal channels.

A different story in the southeast

While farms in the northeastern part of the state have more moisture than they can handle, those in the south are generally optimistic about the season.

Dave Ellens, a farmer who operates near Wentworth with his father, Dale, started planting his corn crop on April 21, a day that was "a little cooler than what we usually plant in."

About a week later, consistent drizzle pushed back his planting schedule, but his fields have benefitted from the water.

"Farmers attitudes have really lifted since these rains showed up," Dave Ellens said. "I don't think we were looking forward to planting in dry dirt, but farmers have a better outlook on the future since we've got these rains."

He said he's already finished planting corn and is now working on getting soybeans in.

Dale Ellens, a farmer from Wentworth, walks away from his crop roller as mud coated his equipment when a rainstorm hit his soybean field Wednesday. Too much can delay farmers from planting crops for up to a week, depending on the amount of precipitation.

Ellens and his father tried to finish planting Wednesday, but a rainstorm hit their bean field before they could lay the last of their seeds. The result is a delay of a couple of days.

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About 30 minutes south and 40 minutes west of Wentworth, Mitchell-area farmer Chad Blindauer has also been delayed by a few days because of the intermittent precipitation.

"About 30% of my corn is planted. With the rains we've been getting, it's very welcome," he said earlier this week.

Southeastern South Dakota farmers who are benefiting from timely rainfall will be a little behind schedule as they wait for the soil to dry, but the earth should be primed for planting.

Dale Ellens climbs out of his mud-covered crop roller after a neighbor arrives to give him a ride back to his home on Wednesday when a rainstorm stopped him from planting soybeans.

Ellens said that while there's room for some cautious optimism, heavy rainfall during planting season could still burn farmers.

"That's the world we're in with farming — knowing that things can change in an instant. (Because) the rains turned on April 28, we've only had little windows to get the crop in," he said.

"I don't want to downplay it. It is an added pressure, but it's definitely early. There is still time for things to turn around," Murray said.

Dominik Dausch is the agriculture and environment reporter for the Argus Leader and editor of Farm Forum. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @DomDNP and send news tips to ddausch@gannett.com.