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2019 crops: A season of rain and fieldwork delays

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Machinery battles its way through a soggy field in a quest to harvest sweet corn in Fond du Lac County on Sept. 22.

The 2019 ended the same way it started with muddy, heavily saturated soil. Below normal temperatures and frequent rain kept soils wet throughout the cropping season.

The soggy year started out with topsoil moisture at nearly 50%, overwintered crops damaged by ice storms in January and February, followed by spring flooding and multiple freeze-thaw cycles in March, April and May. Late snow and cold soil conditions in April and May delayed planting significantly and suppressed crop emergence

and pasture growth, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2019 Wisconsin Crop Progress Review.

Planting dragged on past crop insurance cut off dates in late June with many acres of prevented plantings reported. Poor quantity and quality of hay and pasture kept forage supplies tight through the spring and summer.

This fall planted oats field resembles a small lake following the band of heavy showers that moved across Wisconsin on Oct. 1, 2019.

July brought with it heat — and more rain with the west central and southwest part of the state getting more precipitation than elsewhere. Those wet conditions hampered haying and spraying. By mid July, some severe weather damage hit crops. 

August dried things up a bit, giving farmers a chance to catch up on spraying, making hay and harvesting small grains. However, below-normal temperatures meant crop

development remained one to two weeks behind average. Fields reached their driest rating of the season by Aug. 25 with only 6% of topsoil at surplus.

But frequent rains returned in September with southern and eastern portions of the state receiving more rain than the west and north. Deep mud and high grain moistures delayed the start of fall fieldwork, and remained major problems throughout the rest of the year.

Late planted crops had a little extra time to mature as the first frost held off until the end of October. Days later, temperatures plunged into the teens and a Halloween snowstorm dumped up to 8 inches of snow across southern Wisconsin.

Early November with its below average temperatures, helped firm the ground, allowing farmers to get on fields, unfortunately, frequent snow and rain kept kept grain moistures unusually highs and some farmers delayed harvest even more. With the delays in harvesting came delayed or prevented fall tillage, planting and manure spreading. By Nov. 24, fall tillage was only 39% complete, compared to 67% in 2018. This was

the slowest fall tillage progress in the past 40 years of Crop Progress data.

The big story of crop progress in 2019 was precipitation. The statewide precipitation total for April through September was more than two inches above the previous year — 29.09 inches, compared to 27.35 inches — and way above a normal of 22.43 inches. Not to be outdone, September delivered the largest departure from normal at 3.30 inches above normal.

Corn planting started near the five-year average but maturity lagged one to three weeks behind the average throughout the season. Corn silage chopping started about a week behind the average, but ended over three weeks later than average due to very wet conditions. Tight feed supplies reportedly caused some livestock producers to greenchop corn for feed before optimal maturity and plant moisture were reached. Combining corn for grain didn’t begin until October, and was only 57% complete by Nov. 24. This was 21 days behind 2018, 18 days behind the average and the second slowest harvest pace for corn in the past 40 years of Crop Progress records.

While farmers had hoped for a late frost, Mother Nature showed up on time in this hay field.

Soybeans didn't fare much better with planting started slightly behind the 5-year average. Poor field conditions, delays to corn planting and fields being switched from corn to soybeans meant soybean planting didn’t wrap up until after mid-July, almost a month behind average. This meant soybean bloom was also behind but a warm, rainy September helped soybean maturity catch up slightly. By the time fields reached the coloring and dropping leaves phases, plants were running only two weeks behind average.

The late frost gave soybeans a little extra time to mature but in the end, wet conditions and early snows in October and November hampered combining and prevented some fields from being harvested at all. This was the second slowest soybean harvest in the past 40 years of Crop Progress records.

Oats started out good and maturity was only a couple weeks behind average throughout the season. Dry weather in August gave oat harvest a good start only to end up a month behind the average due to overlap with corn and soybean harvest and heavy rains in September delaying harvest until late October.

Winter wheat started off in poor condition due to widespread winterkill. Cold, wet conditions slowed development and meant less than 50% of the winter wheat crop was in good to excellent condition throughout the spring. Warmer weather in July helped improve wheat condition. Harvest started 12 days behind normal, but ended less than a week behind thanks to drier conditions in August.

Then it came time to plant in fall and the very late soybean harvest delayed winter wheat planting. Some areas planting was prevented when the ground froze in early November. By late November, winter wheat planting and emergence were both over three weeks behind the five year average. 

Winterkill damage in alfalfa was particularly bad in the north central and northwestern parts of the state. There were many reports of spring seeding of alfalfa to replace winterkilled stands, but wet conditions hampered planting and emergence. Tight feed supplies forced farmers to start their first cutting of hay before optimal maturity. All four cuttings of hay ran about two weeks behind the average this season. Though some hay was baled during dry weather in August, much of the hay crop was reportedly chopped and stored as haylage due to frequent rains. An early onset of cold weather combined with some unusually late fourth crop cuttings resulted in concerns for hay stands’ ability to overwinter. 

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.