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Winter weary farmers hit the ground running early last week, after soils dried out enough allowing fieldwork and a bit of planting to commence.

According to the Wisconsin Crop Progress & Condition report, field work was moving ahead full throttle in Dodge County with tractors running around the clock working land trying to get crops into the ground, manure pits being emptied in Pierce and St. Croix counties and farmers drilling oats and corn in Fond du Lac, Rock and Winnebago counties.

That spate of activity was short-lived as heavy thunderstorms rolled through the area on May 3 and 4, dumping several inches of rain across northeast Wisconsin, flooding farm fields and idling farm machinery.

"The surplus of rain has since drowned out many fields and flooded areas," said the farm reporter in Winnebago County. "Corn planted early on last week may already need to be replanted or will see reduced populations."

According to the report, as of May 6, spring tillage was 30 percent complete statewide, just two days behind last year. Corn planting was 15 percent complete with just 5 percent of the state's soybean acres in the ground. Oats planting was reported at 29 percent, eight days behind last year.

While the rain helped to green up winter wheat and hay fields, farmers who have already endured a late planting season due to a mid-April snowstorm that dropped between 20-30 inches of snow, are getting a bit nervous.

"Things are already tight on the farm with low milk prices and some folks not even able to get a loan to buy fertilizer or put crops in the ground," said farmer Mike Peterson. "A lot of people are counting on a good crop this year to help get them through."

This isn't the first time Mother Nature has thwarted the planting plans of Wisconsin farmers. Last year persistent cool, wet weather left some farmers days and weeks behind normal planting times.

"While we are late by the calendar it is early when you look at the weather we have had this spring. This is the first decent weather we had," said Richard Halopka, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Clark County. "Many farmers are stressed out with low prices and then the addition of a long winter/spring and concerned they will have a limited growing season. I've been talking to farmers, the money is tight but they are still taking delivery of seed and fertilizer."

Water from last week's rains is still standing in farm fields in some parts of eastern Wisconsin, which may impact the survival of crops depending on how long the fields remain submerged.

"Low spots in fields are completely drowned out.  There are many areas where there is standing water, especially near the Collins, Reedsville, and Brillion areas where they received approximately 5” of rain last week," said , said Scott Gunderson, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Manitowoc County. 

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Tested patience

Patience is also key in waiting for fields to dry out and for soils to warm up.

"If soils are too cold seeds can't germinate and may rot in the ground," said Loretta Ortiz-Ribbing, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Fond du Lac and Dodge Counties, adding that the late snowfall may have impacted soil temperatures. "Most seeds germinate when the top four inches of soil reaches 50 degrees and above".

Wets soils not only hamper germination, but the machinery used to plant those seeds can also create long-lasting effects on production.

"Be sure not to “mud the crop” into the ground," Gunderson said. "I think we have learned our lesson about how long into the future soil compaction can haunt us with regard to soil quality, crop yield, water infiltration, and more." 

In the meantime, winter wheat and hay ground are greening up and appear to have overwintered well.

"There have been reports of a little winter kill here and there across the county but certainly nothing like we saw last year," Ortiz-Ribbing said.

With warm temperatures and moist soil conditions, Aerica Bjurstrom, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Kewaunee County says many farmers will have a first crop of hay ready sooner than later.

"Many will put the planter aside this year for a little while to harvest good hay since much of the inventory on farms right now isn't very good quality," she said.

Gunderson notes that the challenge again this year for many Wisconsin farmers is that tillage, planting, and harvest of the first cutting of hay will all take place about the same time in many cases.

"Dairy farmer Brian Salm told me, “That’s the new norm now,"" Gunderson said. "(As they wait) farmers are taking this time to double check to make sure that all of the equipment is ready to go the minute the field conditions allow them to plant."

Yield window

As the days roll by and machinery stands idle, the planting window to achieve optimum grain yields grows smaller.

"Corn and soybeans planted after May 10 typically see decreases in grain yield potential," said Mike Ballweg, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Sheboygan County. "However, a lot of corn and soybeans will be planted after that date in eastern Wisconsin. It's not the best-case scenario but it’s not a panic situation yet."

Halopka says the first part of May is not really late, but rather delayed from normal.

"We've planted much later than this in other years," Halopka said. "Stay positive until it really is late, then have a Plan B."

That backup plan may include re-evaluating planting plans and making a phone call to the seed dealer.

"Farmers may consider switching to shorter relative maturities for grain crops once we get past mid-May and certainly by early June," said Greg Blonde, UW-Extension Crops and Soils agent for Waupaca County.

Bjurstrom reminds farmers that corn will still mature and make good silage, even if planted in mid-June.

"Farmers in this area are used to a little later planting season and planting in June isn't out of the ordinary (although not preferred)," she said, "But don't panic yet. A few dry days could turn the planting season around in a hurry."

Blonde says most farmers are optimistic or they wouldn't continue to farm.

"They remember better than most the last couple of late springs have been followed by a later fall, which is consistent with the current NOAA long-range forecast," he said.

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