A year after dealing with drought, farmers battle wet fields

Elisa Sand

While some have told Lannie Mielke that it’s better to deal with too much water than not enough, he disagrees.

Mielke lives south of Aberdeen between Brentford and Melette. That farmland is near the James River. It’s handling the water well enough. His livestock operation near Conde, however, is another story.

“That’s the land that’s really wet,” he said, adding that there’s no way to compare the conditions at the two sites.

The Conde farm got 7 inches alone in the past week or so, he said, and half of it was from a July 1 storm.

“Not many areas can handle that,” he said. “It put us right back to square one.”

He refers to square one as wet, spring thaw conditions.

Mielke said when weather conditions are too dry, a timely shot of rain can help in a hurry. But it takes months or even longer to get a field back in shape when it’s too wet.

On a July 2 road trip to the Conde operation, Mielke pointed out one field after another that was holding water. A year ago, he said, those fields were filled with corn and soybean plants. Now, he points to planted fields with struggling corn and abandoned fields that won’t be planted.

Lannie Mielke laughs as he explains some of the complications of having crop land under water during a tour of his farm Tuesday. Mielke harvested corn from the field at right last fall but the field was never planted this year because of spring runoff and rainfall, including nearly six inches of rain at the end of June. The field may soon have problems with weeds which can’t be treated until the water is gone and the field is dry enough to drive in because there are regulations that limit aerial spraying over open water. American News photo by John Davis taken 7/2/2019

He said farmers expect to navigate through muddy conditions in the spring, followed by better field conditions as the weather improves. But, he said, this year has been a battle with the mud returning just about the time a field starts to dry out.

At his cattle operation, Mielke runs through a list of chores he’d like to get done if field conditions would allow.

Mielke said there have already been no-win situations this year. He was able to cut and bale his hay before it rained, but his relief was short-lived.

“Then the creek flooded and a lot of bales sat in water,” he said. “You can’t win.”

Getting hay baled in time is key since the hay will spoil if it lays on the wet ground too long. Fortunately, he said, some of the bales are salvageable, but the part that sat in water is ruined.

A newly constructed hoop barn has helped this year, but, Mielke said, getting feed to the cattle has been the biggest challenge.

“We’ve got very good ways to feed them in a bunk,” he said. “But you still have to get it to them.”

Mielke said conditions this year remind him of the wet conditions in 2010.

A National Weather Service review of June weather shows Aberdeen received 4.7 inches, which is 1 inch above average. Meanwhile, Sisseton has had 2.56 inches, or 1.18 inches below average. Mielke said the Conde area has recorded even more rain than Aberdeen.

That rain, however, is on top of higher-than-average precipitation earlier this year. National Weather Service data for 2019 shows Aberdeen has recorded 14.09 inches of precipitation since January. That’s historically higher than the average for the end of July.

Aaron Dorn, meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the soil conditions today are vastly different from 2018 when the area was hindered by drought.

“Based on responses we’re pretty saturated on soil,” Dorn said referring to rising creek and river levels after storms.

Scott Anderson, who has been farming since 2010 south of Brentford and north and south of Andover, has also dealt with varied field conditions. A storm on July 1 yielded an inch of rain near Andover and 3 inches south of Brentford.

“It’s just bad,” he said. “I would put this year on par with 2015 as far as the financial stress on farmers.”

Lannie Mielke talks about the muddy tracks left in the soil by his feeding equipment near a cattle feed lot his farm Tuesday. Mielke and other area farmers around Aberdeen are having problems with planting and day to day operations due to wet ground caused by spring runoff and rainfall, Mielke said nearly six inches of rain fell on some of his land at the end of June. American News photos by John Davis

The 3 inches from a recent rain is just sitting on already saturated ground, Anderson said.

“Given that they’re already saturated, the water will just pond on the field and drown the plants,” he said.

While some corn might hit “knee-high by the fourth of July,” Anderson said many fields are behind schedule and some farmers simply didn’t plant.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service crop progress reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the last two weeks in June, 96 percent of the corn was planted by the week of June 23, which was up from 78 percent the week of June 16. Of the corn that was planted, 96 percent was above ground.

Soybeans planting shows a similar trend. About 84 percent of beans were planted as of the week of June 23. By the following week, 97 percent were planted with 82 percent above ground.

Both crops are typically 100 percent planted by the end of June.

Bales of hay sit on the edge of a flooded creek bed near Lannie Mielke’s farm Tuesday. While the creek is receeding, the bales show the high water mark caused by nearly six inches of rain that fell on the area at the end of June.

USDA reports show planting was slow to get started, with 6 percent of soybean fields planted by the week of May 26, and 25 percent of corn fields planted that same week. Between 2014 and 2018, 90 percent of corn and 64 percent of soybeans had been planted by the end of May.

“We really struggled to get things in on time,” Anderson said. “We were late on some stuff. We wanted to do the best we can.”

Anderson said he was able to plant 80 to 85 percent of his land this year.

Financially, he said, that means his overall cost per acre is going to increase because he’s spreading it across fewer acres.

While crop insurance can cover instances in which fields aren’t planted, Anderson said, farmers still have expenses, like rent, on acres that don’t get planted.

“Financially, the biggest challenge for most farmers is you’re still paying cash rent own those acres,” he said. “You’ve got zero production on those acres you can’t plant, and you still have to pay the rent.”

Mielke and Anderson both said these wet conditions are just the beginning. The next issue will be weed control on the fields that didn’t get planted. Anderson said one of the popular herbicides contains dicamba, a chemical known to volatilize after application. That’s when it vaporizes after application and spreads to nearby fields.

Anderson said with more fields being sprayed, additional harm could be done to nearby fields.

Anderson and Mielke also say moisture levels will be high with harvested crops, which will lead to higher demand on propane for drying. But, Mielke said, planning ahead is a catch 22.

“We don’t know, even the corn that looks good now, if it will make it to maturity,” Mielke said.

Lannie Mielke drives through standing water on the road near his farm Tuesday.