'Terrible' drought, pests plague corn growers in northeastern, southeast South Dakota

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

Generally speaking, South Dakota's corn harvest is shaping up to be a bit below average.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service's latest crop production report, the state's crop yield is estimated at 138 bushels per acre – a number nowhere near the record-breaking harvest of 2020, when farmers gathered a staggering 162 bushels per acre.

As far as corn harvests will go in eastern South Dakota, your mileage may vary. In the northeastern counties, springtime floods and incessant rainfall oversaturated the region with moisture, according to previous reporting. The precipitation flooded some fields in the region, which prevents producers from being able to plant their seeds during a critical planting window.

DaNita Murray, executive director of South Dakota Corn

"Things did turn drier up in the northeast corner over the last two weeks, but, really, the question is whether that corn actually got planted," said DaNita Murray, executive director of South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

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Too much of a good thing

John Horter is one producer who received a mixed bag from the wet spring.

On his farm in western Day County, he called the rains "timely" and the weather conditions "almost perfect." The last two weeks of heat, he said, are drying out his fields just in time for the harvest.

But there's a lot of lost potential: The corn in his fields looks good, he said, but the rains flooded what's traditionally his highest yielding areas of the farm, which kept him from being able to plant those acres.

"Our overall yields are going to be average on corn," Horter said. "The thing that truly surprised me this year is two weeks ago, our fields were looking very lush, and then, when the temperatures hit the 80s, the plants just turned brown."

More:Weekend rains soak some drought-stressed South Dakota farms ahead of harvest season

Too dry to try

The drought monitor map for the High Plains was released Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022.

The southeast corner of the state, on the other hand, is bone dry, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report. For weeks, South Dakota's southeastern counties have suffered from severe drought conditions, which has forced some farmers to start salvaging some stalks early for use as silage, or livestock feed, according to previous reporting.

Jon Schaeffer, a farmer who owns land between Turner and Yankton County, put the whole situation rather plainly: "It's pretty terrible."

He estimated farmers in the region have harvested two or three times the usual amount of silage. While this only makes up a small percentage of most producers' overall harvest, this still means there's going to be less corn harvested for food.

Jon Schaeffer holds two small corncobs he gathered from his farm Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Schaffer says weeks of severe drought is stunting corn in his region and making it too small to harvest.

"We're just lucky the corn got tall enough to make silage out of it," Schaefer said. "Corn ears are going to be small. A lot of them won't go through the combines. They'll just run through the stripper heads. It'll be tough."

Schaefer said pests are another big problem for farmers in the area. Grasshoppers, which thrive in drought conditions, have decimated some fields, he added. Spider mites are another common pest chewing through the leaves of corn and damaging the crop in the process.

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The leaves on these ears of corn near Viborg, South Dakota are starting to curl and even wither due to the excessive heat from an on-going drought Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Grasshoppers, a common pest to farmers, thrive in dry conditions and can diminish corn yields by feeding on the crop.

With these two issues compounded, Schaefer guessed regional corn yields will be "a quarter to a third of a normal crop of bushels per acre."

"We don't know until we get into it and start combining," Schaefer 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.