A year after dealing with drought, farmers battle wet fields

Elisa Sand
Aberdeen American News
This photo taken July 2, 2019, shows Lannie Mielke talking about the muddy tracks left in the soil by his feeding equipment near a cattle feedlot his farm. 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.

ABERBEEN, S.D. (AP) -  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 Mellette. 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 came from a day's storm.

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

He referred 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 an afternoon 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 pointed to planted fields with struggling corn and abandoned fields that won't be planted.

This photo taken July 2, 2019, shows cattle owned by Lannie Mielke wading through mud and manure in the feedlot on his farm in Aberdeen, S.D. 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 the feedlot looks more like April instead of July due to nearly six inches of rain that fell at the end of June.

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 told Aberdeen American News. "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.

This photo taken July 2, 2019, shows bales of hay sit on the edge of a flooded creek bed near Lannie Mielke's farm in Aberdeen, S.D. While the creek is receding, the bales show the high water mark caused by nearly six inches of rain that fell on the area at the end of June.

"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," said Dorn, referring to rising creek and river levels after storms.

Tis photo taken July 2, 2019, shows Lannie Mielke driving through standing water on the road near his farm in Aberdeen, S.D. 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.

Scott Anderson, who has been farming since 2010 south of Brentford and north and south of Andover, has also dealt with varied field conditions. The most recent storm last week 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."

The 3 inches from earlier this week 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% of the corn was planted by the week of June 23, which was up from 78% the week of June 16. Of the corn that was planted, 96% was above ground.

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

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

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