While children in southern Wisconsin were shocked to wake up on Halloween to a few inches of snow, farmers in the region weren’t particularly stirred as this year’s saga of wet weather continues. Most of the area received between 3 and 7 inches of snow the last week of October, breaking the record in Madison for the snowiest October, which was set back in 1917.
As weather conditions continue to pose challenges for farmers across the state, fall harvest and plantings lag well behind last year and the 5-year average.
Corn for grain harvest sat at just 21%, and soybean harvest was 62% complete, according to the Nov. 4 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Wisconsin Crop Progress and Condition report. The report also showed winter wheat planting at 75% complete, with 49% emerged.
Comparatively, the same report a year ago showed corn for grain harvest at 59% and soybean harvest at 78%. Winter wheat was 92% planted, and 74% had emerged.
At 88% complete, corn for silage harvest is over three weeks behind last year’s pace.
In general, this year’s Nov. 4 report shows crop progress in Wisconsin ranging from 12 to 19 days behind the 5-year average.
“We’re probably three weeks behind on the average harvest,” Chippewa County UW-Extension Agriculture Educator Jerry Clark said. “Soybeans are still being wrapped up, and normally that’s done in mid-October.”
This year, soggy field conditions have not been aided by bouts of snow that recently left parts of southern and eastern Wisconsin under up to 8 inches of snow and temperatures well below normal, according to the Nov. 4 report, which was issued before up to 4 inches again coated southern parts of the state Nov. 6.
Topsoil moisture across the state was 37% surplus, according to the most recent report, and subsoil moisture was 36% surplus.
Although weather conditions in early November 2018 were quite wet as well, temperatures remained close to normal, and topsoil and subsoil surplus moisture were still more than 10 percentage points lower than in 2019, based on the Nov. 5, 2018 report.
While still not ideal, conditions have been a little more favorable recently in northern and western Wisconsin where minimal precipitation had farmers racing for the fields, the Nov. 4 report said.
Despite all the weather challenges, some farmers have been “pleasantly surprised” with their corn and soybean yields, considering how late the corn went into the ground and how long it had been in the ground before it emerged this spring, according to Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UW-Extension agriculture agent. They aren’t “bin-busters,” as he called it, but some yields have been better than expected.
Josh Kamps, Lafayette County UW-Extension agriculture agent, said the situation is similar in his county, with a lot of combines and trucks moving about the first few days of November before the next snow storm blanketed the ground Nov. 6.
“The corn has really good yield potential,” Kamps said. “It may have taken awhile to grow but once it came, it brought good yields.”
“If we can get to our crop, we’ll be fairly satisfied,” he added.
But obstacles still stand in the way. Farmers attempting to get into wet fields run the risk of compaction, as fields are still pretty wet. And if a wet winter and spring are in the cards, there is the possibility for erosion problems down the road. Farmers have to be hopeful they won’t get another repeat year where they start late and end early.
“The ground is super saturated still,” Kamps said. “At this point, if it stayed cool and dry, or cold and dry, it’s going to be the best scenario to get the rest harvested.”
As much as he hated to admit it, cold weather would help with crop progress, Schriefer said. When the fields are frozen up, it’ll be easier to get heavier equipment in to harvest remaining crops.
Schriefer has also heard that there has been some lodging in corn and that some farmers are experiencing high moisture levels in the corn they planted later in the season. This will make for higher drying costs, Schriefer said.
Clark agreed, saying corn moisture is still high, with sampling showing moisture percentages ranging from the high teens to mid-20s in many fields.
“Drying costs are going to be huge yet, or farmers are going to wait to see if the weather cooperates a little to dry it down,” he said. “But once we get into December, you only lose a point a month with corn. It just doesn’t dry down in December, January and February. And that drying doesn’t kick back in until March or April.
“And if the corn is still standing then, you have to deal with that before you can plant next year’s crop.”
Schriefer said the big story this year is the lack of high quality hay. The fourth cutting of alfalfa hay was listed at 87% complete statewide, according to the Nov. 4 report.
“It’s been a real challenging year to get quality dairy hay made,” he said.
Schriefer understands many farmers may have sold off their haying equipment, but 2020 could present an opportunity after wet conditions in 2018 and 2019 saw hay supply numbers dip relatively low. In fact, hay supplies were the second lowest they’d been in 75 years in 2018.
Alfalfa was a big concern coming into the year because of winterkill, forcing farmers to reinvest in seeding fields down, Clark said.
“Overall, dairy farmers and livestock producers are watching feed inventory to make sure they’ve got enough to get through winter,” he said.
Clark said some farmers have decided to forgo dried grain in favor of selling high-moisture corn to dairy or livestock producers looking to increase their feed inventory.
“Then you don’t have the drying cost on the grain-producer’s side, and the dairy farmer can get the feed they need to get through the winter,” Clark said.
Because of difficulties getting the crops out of the fields, both Schriefer and Kamps agreed that fall tilling and cover crop planting may be delayed or not completed at all. Time is ticking for cover crops, and depending on when the farmer got them in the ground, they may not see much growth on them this year.
With four years of low prices for a lot of segments of agriculture, Schriefer also recommended farmers take a close look at the numbers from this year and make a plan for 2020. Record which fields yielded and which ones didn’t, and if a farmer isn’t covering his direct costs, he needs to make adjustments.
“Looking back at what happened last year — we had cold weather before the snow and rain and ice — if we could avoid the catastrophe of weather like we had last year, we’ll be in better shape,” Clark said. “I’ve had a number of farmers say they’ve never seen a year like this, where they’ve had so many challenges thrown at them throughout one season, coupled with prices that have just stayed low.”
Traditional crops, such as corn and soybeans, aren’t the only ones being negatively affected by poor conditions this year.
Near Eau Claire, Silver Spring Foods and Huntsinger Farms, 2020 Farm Technology Days host and the world’s largest grower and processor of horseradish, announced Oct. 31 that there is a “general shortage” of horseradish due to harsh weather conditions this spring and fall.
Eric Rygg, president of Silver Spring Foods, said in a news release, “While we’ve planted more horseradish than ever before, we’ve been unable to harvest it all on time due to the huge snow melt, a wet fall and an early frost.”
Looking forward, the cold that has encompassed Wisconsin in recent weeks doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast, with National Weather Service forecast predictions showing well-below-average temperatures through mid-week and likely beyond.