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Weather woes: Crop progress lags as poor conditions persist

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.

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Despite pressure, Senate rejects confirmation of Pfaff

MADISON — Despite pressure from ag industry groups and Democratic efforts, the Republican-controlled State Senate voted Nov. 5 to reject the confirmation of Brad Pfaff as Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary.

The highly unusual move came after Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald indicated Nov. 1 that Pfaff, who had served since January, did not have the votes necessary and urged Governor Tony Evers to withdraw his nomination.

Evers did not withdraw his nomination, and the vote would go on as scheduled.

After Pfaff’s confirmation came into doubt, several prominent Wisconsin ag industry groups, including the Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Cheese Maker Association, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association and Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, voiced their support for the nominee.

In a letter to the Senate signed by WCGA President Doug Rebout, the organization wrote, “Our members need stability and continuity. They need someone to speak on their behalf, to work on their behalf and to put it simply: someone to care. Brad Pfaff is that person.”

A statement of support from DBA, which is the state’s largest dairy lobbying group, included similar sentiments, saying that at a time when dairy farmers face a “perfect storm of challenges” ranging from milk prices and weather to changing regulations and trade disruptions, they need “certainty and stability, not a political fight.”

Several state and national legislators voiced their support as well, but the Senate was not swayed, voting 19-14 along party lines to reject the appointment and marking the first time in modern history that a Wisconsin gubernatorial cabinet nominee has been rejected by the Senate.

In a statement after the vote, Evers said, “I was honored to be able to appoint Brad, and it has been my honor to have the opportunity to serve alongside him these past eleven months.

“And that’s why Republicans’ actions today were nothing short of callous and cruel.”

Evers went on to say that calling the vote “a dark day for Wisconsin is simply an understatement.”

Prior to the final vote, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Revenue and Financial Institutions, which included five Republican members, had voted unanimously to approve Pfaff in February. The Republican members of that committee all voted against Pfaff on Nov. 5.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, is listed as chair of that committee.

In a statement following the rejection, Marklein stated that at the time he voted for Pfaff in February, “I was hopeful that Mr. Pfaff would be positive, strong leader for an agency that has traditionally been nonpolitical and focused on the industries it supports.

“Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Mr. Pfaff’s actions over the last eight months,” Marklein continued, going to accuse Pfaff of “play(ing) politics with information” and “attack(ing) the legislature to the detriment of his agency.”

Earlier this year, Pfaff riled some Republican lawmakers after publicly criticizing the failure of the Legislature’s budget committee to release $200,000 in funds dedicated for farmer mental health. The funds were eventually released.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, defended Pfaff’s actions toward the budget committee in statement following the final vote, “Our Agriculture Secretary — whose job it is to defend and advocate for farmers — had the courage to stand up and fight for farmers and against suicide.

“Unfortunately, that courage wasn’t replicated on the Senate floor today,” he continued, adding that switched votes “cost our farmers the best qualified candidate for the job.”

Darin Von Ruden, president of Wisconsin Farmers Union and a Westby organic dairy farmer, said on behalf of the organization, “Pfaff, who was incredibly qualified and already had spent nearly a year in his role, was sacrificed for standing up for the very family farmers he was meant to represent.”

Prior to being nominated as DATCP secretary, Pfaff’s resume included serving as U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s deputy chief of staff as well as Wisconsin state executive director and national deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency.

He also grew up on a dairy farm in La Crosse County.

Von Ruden stated that WFU appreciated “Pfaff’s long-time commitment to family farmers” and that it seemed the Senate was “punishing” Pfaff for pushing farmers mental health and revisiting ATCP 51, the livestock siting law.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Association of Professional Agricultural Consultants, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association issued a joint statement that noted they supported Pfaff at his confirmation hearing but also respected the “authority of the State Senate to review leadership appointments.”

As the DATCP Board met Nov. 7, a few days after the vote, Evers visited with DATCP staff to assure them that their work is important during this time of change within the department.

“I was hoping the legislature would have approved Brad — there was no reason for them not to — but frankly, I’d say they took an immoral approach and decided politics were going to trump competence and passion,” Evers said.

Evers has named Randy Romanski, who served as deputy secretary under Pfaff, as the interim secretary of the department. He has no successors in mind at this point in time as he assumed the Senate would have approved Pfaff.

This is the second time Romanski has served as interim DATCP secretary; following the death of then-DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen in 2010, Romanski was named interim secretary.

Romanski addressed the DATCP board Nov. 7, admitting he wondered how the day following the Nov. 5 Senate vote would start. As it turned out, it started just like any other day before — with a morning phone call from Pfaff as Romanski was brushing his teeth.

“I’ll be honest with you, I wish it were Brad sitting here talking to you instead of me,” Romanski said at the opening of the DATCP board meeting. “He loved his job and he loves this agency, but you guys know this because you’ve spent some time with him.

“He has an energy and exuberance about agriculture in Wisconsin, Wisconsin products and telling the story of agriculture — it was something he did everyday with the agency.”

He conveyed Pfaff’s appreciation to the DATCP board and those in the audience at the DATCP board meeting, many of whom are frequent contributors to the work done by the board and agency.

“There’s some things in life that life doesn’t really prepare you for, and this is one of those,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate and unexpected thing we’re all going through at the agency.”

Two other cabinet nominations for Insurance Commissioner and Public Service Commission were unanimously approved on the day Pfaff was rejected.

With those confirmations, the total number of approved agency leaders since Evers took office rose to seven. Several other nominees remain in limbo, although they are allowed to serve until a vote is taken.

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DATCP puts the brakes on livestock siting vote

MADISON — Just two weeks after the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board met via teleconference to preview changes made to ATCP51, which outlines the state’s livestock siting regulations, the agency has decided it will no longer move forward with proposed changes to the controversial set of rules.

The decision comes after 12 public hearings were held around the state, in which hundreds of people turned out to provide testimony. The DATCP board was set to vote on the changes at their Nov. 7 meeting, but instead heard that the agency wasn’t quite ready to send the proposed changes to the legislature for their review.

“Since holding public hearings earlier this year, the department has held ongoing, constructive meetings with stakeholders on this complex rule. Given the tremendous importance of our dairy and livestock industries to the state of Wisconsin, we’ve decided to take more time to continue these discussions,” said now former DATCP secretary-designee Brad Pfaff.

Pfaff, whose appointment was rejected by the State Senate Nov. 5, added that he’s extremely proud of the time and effort the department put into the rule considerations, along with the board’s interest and willingness to allow the public engagement process to proceed.

Industry organizations, such as the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, expressed their support for Pfaff’s call for additional time and consideration of ATCP51.

“Secretary-designee Pfaff recognizes the economic hardship and other challenges faced by our partners in the dairy farming community, and he has done the right thing in calling for additional time and consideration of livestock siting regulations,” said John Umhoefer, WCMA executive director.

However, some organizations, including the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, are calling for the rule revisions to be removed completely.

“It’s not enough to delay consideration of the proposed changes to ATCP51,” said Cindy Leitner, WDA president. “These proposed changes would have a devastating impact on the struggling dairy industry in Wisconsin...(and) the dairy industry has been sounding the alarm bells on these rule revisions for months.”

Leitner referenced a letter sent to DATCP in September that outlined their specific concerns with the revisions, which included but weren’t limited to, the abandonment of the existing odor scoring system in favor of new property-line setbacks; inconsistencies with existing state and federal standards; and broadened local control that could discourage livestock farming in certain communities. The letter was signed by a handful of industry organizations, including the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Cooperative Network, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, Wisconsin Dairy Products Association, Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Wisconsin Pork Association.

A more recent letter signed by industry organizations and submitted to DATCP board chair Miranda Leis acknowledges that progress has been made on some of the issues the groups outlined in their previous letter, but the proposed changes have also created new items of concern.

“We want what is best for Wisconsin agriculture and we do not believe this most recent draft fits that description,” the letter read. “(The rules) are not ‘practical and workable, cost-effective,’ nor are they ‘designed to promote the growth and viability of animal agriculture in this state.’”

While many industry organizations are supportive of DATCP’s decision, Wisconsin Farmers Union has come out in opposition of the decision to halt changes for the livestock siting rule. Wisconsin Farmers Union president Darin Von Ruden urged DATCP and Pfaff to reverse course immediately and bring rule revisions to a vote before the DATCP board.

“To scrap the rules now is to ignore the input of hundreds of citizens who participated in the public comment process, not to mention the hundreds of hours invested by technical review committee members in 2010, 2014 and again in 2018,” Von Ruden said. “To abandon the revisions now at the 11th hour is a colossal waste of government resources.”

The state’s livestock siting rule went into effect in 2006 and hasn’t been changed since its adoption. The administrative rule, which sets standards and procedures that local governments must follow if they choose to require permits for new or expanding livestock operations, is required to be reviewed by the department every four years. Technical committees have undertaken this review in 2010, 2014 and in 2018.

For more up-to-date information on ATCP51 and any movement as the rule revision process continues, visit https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/Programs_Services/LSRuleRevision.aspx.

Venison cheesesteak sloppy joes

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Top: Jeff Lake — pictured with his daughter, April, wife, Kelly, and son, Jake, on their Dunn County farm — was named 2019 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award winner Nov. 7 in Madison.