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Photo by Heidi Clausen  

The Sandy Acres is home to more than 100 head of Miniature Hereford beef cattle. The breed typically matures at 3 to 4 feet tall and about 800 pounds.

Waiting game: Farmers eager to hit the fields for spring work

If not entirely gone, snow and frost are disappearing quickly, and farmers are eager to get into the fields.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Wisconsin Crop Progress report issued April 22, manure spreading, tillage and early planting are all starting, but conditions, while difficult in the southern districts, are even more difficult in the central and northern districts.

“I’m sure there will be some people getting out in the next couple days, depending on what the weather does,” UW-Extension Clark County Agricultural Educator Richard Halopka said. “My personal feeling is, if we’re in the fields by May 1, we’re doing OK. If we’re not in there by May 10, there would start to be some concern.

“But you’ve got your Plan A, and you’ve got your Plan B. Then you have plans C and D in your back pocket, just in case. And if we start to get close to June, you ask yourself, do you need corn silage or high-moisture corn, and that’s your Plan C or D.”

According to the April 22 Crop Progress report, spring tillage was 8 percent complete statewide, up 5 percentage points from the previous week but 5 points behind the five-year average. The report stated that corn planting was 1 percent complete, one point behind the five-year average, and oats were reported as 10 percent complete, five days ahead of last year but four days behind the five-year average.

“We can try to push the envelope, but what is that going to get us in the end?” Halopka said. “Farmers don’t like me telling them this, but until the fields are ready to go, sometimes we’re better off enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out the window at the sunshine than we are getting out in the fields and breaking equipment.”

Jon Wantoch, agronomist for Synergy Cooperative in Ridgeland, said most area farmers are on pace for a normal spring planting season, unless the rains keep coming. Some sunshine and warm, dry weather are needed.

“If it keeps raining an inch or two every three days, that could quickly put us behind normal,” he said. “It’s just a matter of fighting rain showers now.”

He said local farmers with sandy ground expected to be in the fields by the end of last week, while those with heavier soils — still spongy and saturated — are still waiting for conditions to dry out, and it could be a week or two, depending on the weather.

Wantoch said a lot of farmers he works with like to be planting corn between May 1-10, with soybeans going into the ground soon after. Once the weather cooperates, it doesn’t take them long to get the crop in.

“These guys have gotten so efficient,” Wantoch said. “Equipment is bigger and faster and more reliable. They can put in more acres so much faster. What was normal 20 years ago isn’t normal anymore.”

He said about 80 percent of the corn crop was planted within about a 10-day period last year, and a similar scenario could play out this year.

Wantoch said farmers are entering the growing season with plenty of subsoil moisture, despite the fact that a lot of the snow that fell in February and March ran off when it melted because the ground was completely frozen due to January’s bitter cold and little to no snow.

The waiting game

Wantoch said the biggest challenge this year could be faced by dairy producers who rely on custom applicators to empty their pits and spread manure on fields.

“The dairy guys could be in for a little bigger struggle, waiting for applicators and pits to be pumped so they can can get planting,” he said.

While everyone in farming this time of year has places to go and things to do, Wantoch said, some of those efforts are on hold as some road bans are still in place. Once those are lifted, he said, “that will really get the ball rolling.”

As far as alfalfa winterkill, Wantoch said he’s seeing more injury than kill in the fields so far. He estimates the extent of winterkill at 10 percent to 20 percent and the level of injury at 60 percent to 80 percent.

It’s a good sign, but tonnage definitely will be down this year, he said.

Ben Sand, agronomy manager for Countryside Cooperative in New Richmond, said fertilizer spreading is underway “anywhere soils are light.” He said fieldwork should be about on pace with last year.

“Nobody’s changing maturity on anything yet,” Sand said.

After the festivities concluded on Easter Sunday, the McComish family of Darlington headed out to the fields to kick off the start of corn planting season on their dairy farm. But since then, the family has had to wait after rain fell during the week.

But for the McComishes, “when it’s go time, it’s go time.”

“I know a lot of people in the area have started planting, especially if they have a lot of acres,” Amber McComish said. “When we get those windows of opportunity, we’ll take them.”

Many farmers in southern Wisconsin, particularly southwest Wisconsin, seized a window of opportunity this past week, with Ben Huber of Insight FS commenting that this spring is shaping up to be pretty good for planting, at least in this corner of the state.

“In southwest Wisconsin, in particular, we’re in pretty darn good shape,” Huber said. “These are some of the better early conditions that we’ve had in a while.”

He’s heard farmers are getting a lot of corn into the ground, along with alfalfa. And he’s even heard of a few farmers in the southwest corner of Wisconsin planting soybeans, although it’s still pretty early.

“Soil temperatures are still a little cool across the state in general, but farmers are utilizing good yield and research data to make decisions about planting earlier,” he said. “People are feeling pretty good for the most part in the south.”

However, further north, conditions are a bit different due to higher moisture levels and in some areas, there is still snow on the ground. Some farmers to the north are sure to be jealous of conditions to the south, Huber said.

“We’re right in that sweet spot for planting,” he said. “With it being April 24 and things usually wrapping up around May 10 or 12, we’re at the early end of that range and for most people, it’s pretty good.”{/div}

Transmission line report details significant ag impacts

Finding all proposed routes for the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line project “would impact significant acres of farmland,” the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in its agricultural impact statement published April 18 chose to not recommend a specific route for the power line.

According to the statement, of the 895 property owners that may be affected by the project, 692 own agricultural properties along the various potential routes; about 3,700 acres, or about 77 percent, of all potentially affected acres are in agriculture. However, the actual amount of farmland and number of farms affected would depend on which route is chosen.

The statement also references that most of the potential routes outlined for the project are cross-country, meaning they run across fields, woodlots and open areas, following no particular boundaries.

“Constructing an electric line through the middle of these highly productive farms and fields instead of along field edges or property boundaries often increases the impacts to agriculture operations,” the statement read. “This increased impact is felt during construction and long afterwards.”

Potential impacts from cross-country routing outlined in the report include soil mixing, which can significantly impact future crop yields; damage to agricultural erosion controls and/or water management practices and facilities, put in place for farming in hilly environments; interference with fencing and livestock management; contamination of organic farms; and more tree removal causing increased forest fragmentation, interference with forest management plans and a reduction in farm income from timber harvests. This type of routing often creates islands of non-farmable land located within farm fields where electric poles stand, which also require the construction and use of numerous and lengthy access roads to reach these structures.

“Due to the increased impacts associated with cross-country routes, DATCP generally prefers routes that follow the edges of fields or property boundaries,” the statement read.

DATCP also prefers routes that contain the least amount of new right-of-way on farmland soils of highest productivity.

The statement continues: “This area of the state has the highest percentage of land dedicated to farming and the largest number of beef cattle, swine and dairy goats. On average, farmers own more than 75 percent of the land in the four potentially affected counties. Agriculture in this region includes cropland used for corn and soybeans as well as small grains, pasture for dairy and beef cattle, tree farms and farm forests. The area is also home to a wide range of organic farms.

“The four counties, Dane, Grant, Iowa and Lafayette, are all top agriculture producers (with) a large percentage of prime farmland and yields typically among the highest in the state and country.”

DATCP participated in three Public Service Commission public scoping meetings in November 2018, providing information to affected landowners and receiving comments. The department also sent 337 questionnaires to agricultural property owners who may have three or more acres acquired as an easement or purchased for the project. Some 126 landowners responded to the questionnaire, and their comments were summarized in the document.

While no specific route was recommended by DATCP, the department did provide recommendations to the Public Service Commission, the power companies that submitted the application and agricultural property owners so harmful impacts to farmland and farm operations can be minimized if the project receives final approval.

DATCP recommended the PSC modify routes when warranted to avoid residences or agricultural buildings within the right-of-way and to minimize impacts to farming operations and existing land uses; create a document that outlines general practices and procedures for working in and near organic farms to ensure these operations are protected; require the power companies to work with any landowner participating in a conservation or tax incentive program to avoid or mitigate impacts to these lands, including compensation if the landowner is removed from the program due to the project; and to require the power companies to keep renters of land informed of construction schedules and potential impacts, among other items.

DATCP also recommended that the PSC require the use of Independent Environmental Monitors and Independent Agricultural Monitors for the project, hired to verify that construction avoids or minimizes impacts to agricultural properties.

For the three “applicants,” DATCP recommended they consult with affected farmland owners to determine the least damaging locations for transmission structures and off-right-of-way access roads; consult with county conservationists to ensure that construction proceeds in a manner that minimizes drainage problems, crop damage, soil compaction and soil erosion; and undertake post-construction monitoring to make sure damages to agricultural fields or operations are repaired or mitigated.

Landowners should carefully examine the language of any easement contract and verify that it contains all agreed-to terms, DATCP recommended. They should also keep records of the condition of their land within the right-of-way and before, during and after construction to document any impacts or damages; communicate with the power companies as to the location of drainage tiles; and consult with a conservation program provider to determine if any effects will occur due to the land’s alteration.

Also recommended by DATCP, landowners with organic certification should discuss the range and type of substances that are not permitted on their land and provide a list to the power companies and their contractors. Dairy operators should also contact their local electric power utility to request stray-voltage testing of their facilities before proposed project construction starts and after it is completed to determine if the project caused any electrical problems.

“Electric transmission lines can present a number of safety concerns to farmers and their operations,” the statement said, recommending that farm operators discuss any operation or facility safety concerns related to the construction or operation of this electric project with the applicants.

The proposed 345-kV electric transmission line is a joint project between American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest LLC and Dairyland Power Cooperative, planned to span about 102 to 120 miles from Dubuque County, Iowa, to Dane County, Wisconsin. Talk of the project can be traced back to 2014 when the power companies began educating the public on their intentions, filing the required applications with state regulators in 2018 with an anticipated decision from them late this year or early next year.

The project has been controversial, with citizens and landowners along the proposed routes coming together in opposition, citing that the lines are not needed, expensive to the taxpayer, destroy the unique environment of the Driftless Area and pose serious economic impacts to tourism, agriculture and overall property values.

The full agricultural impact statement is available at https://datcp.wi.gov/Documents/AISCardHickCr.pdf. Paper copies of the document are available by calling 608-224-4650; emailing DATCPagimpactstatements@wi.gov or writing to DATCP, attn: Ag Impact Statements, P.O. Box 8911, Madison, WI 53708-8911.

State ag leaders push for end to trade wars

BANGOR — Trade uncertainty and tariffs are taking a toll on nearly all aspects of the agriculture industry, so during the two-week congressional recess in April, the advocacy group Farmers for Free Trade embarked on a 14-day, 3,500-mile tour through farm districts discussing the importance of trade with Canada and Mexico with area legislators.

The group’s April 23 stop at Justin and Louisa Peterson’s Creamery Creek Holsteins dairy farm in Bangor brought U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse; Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Brad Pfaff; Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte; National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern; Tony Mellenthin, Wisconsin Soybean Association president; A.V. Roth of the Wisconsin Pork Association; Angela Marshall Hofmann, co-executive director of Farmers for Free Trade; and several area farmers together to discuss the importance of ending tariffs and strengthening North American trade relationships for Wisconsin farmers, workers and families.

“It was important to get Wisconsin on the whistle-stop tour, and it’s important to talk about trade,” Louisa Peterson said. “It’s just such an important issue, and something has to get done soon.”

Kind called for trade wars that have led to unilateral tariffs and retaliations to be ended before Congress can move on to approving the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade.

“Almost every week, I’m working with the president’s trade team trying to find a safe landing zone to end these tariffs and the retaliation that is devastating our farmers,” Kind said. “It is important for us to be out negotiating trade agreements that elevate standards up to our level and level the playing field so that our farmers and our manufacturers and our workers can compete in the global market and open up more export markets, which could go a long way toward improving the prices our farmers are getting.”

In 2018, Wisconsin farmers sold $3.5 billion worth of goods to consumers in 143 countries. Canada bought $1.1 billion worth of Wisconsin agricultural exports, and $264 million in exports went to Mexico.

“People from around the world want products from our farms, and we want to make sure we give them that opportunity,” Pfaff said.

“Production agriculture is a big part of our economy and who we are,” Kind said. “It still employs more people than any other industry in the state. It’s crucial for the livelihood of our rural economies and rural communities.”

A.V. Roth, a pork producer in Crawford County, said the pork industry is facing 62 percent tariffs on their products going into China, where African Swine Fever is threatening to wipe out up to 20 percent of their herd.

“All we want to do is be able to sell our product around the world,” Roth said. “We just want an opportunity to get into those markets.”

Mulhern, who is taking part in the Farmers for Free Trade tour, said the USMCA is important because it maintains access to Mexico, the No. 1 market for U.S. dairy exports.

“We need access to international markets and we need better trade agreements to access those markets,” Mulhern said. “The first one in the queue is the USMCA, which includes some important improvements for the dairy industry.”

Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in 2018, as dairy farmers struggle with low milk prices and an oversupply of milk in the market, and Farmers For Free Trade believes ending tariffs and approving the new trade deals that expand export opportunities can help increase farm revenue.

“As production of commodities has increased, we find ourselves in a more difficult position to sell our product at a fair price around the world,” Holte said. “A trade agreement would have an impact on the price we receive. When we have these agreements made but not yet finished by Congress, it provides a lot of uncertainty. We’d like to move past that.”

“Good policy can help, but nothing is going to help more than a good market price,” Kind said. “That, in part, is what good trade agreements are about: Being able to clear excess supply that’s being produced here at home, selling it into high-demand areas like Mexico, Canada and throughout the world, so our farmers get a better price at the end of the day.

“That needs to be our North Star, our guiding light. How do we get a better price for our family farmers so they can survive and pass the operation on to the next generation and keep our communities healthy and prosperous at the same time.”

Trade got plenty of attention from Wisconsin lawmakers during their April recess.

In addition to the Farmers for Free Trade stop in Bangor, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, hosted an agriculture and trade field hearing with agriculture industry experts and federal administration officials April 25, giving community members the opportunity to hear from federal officials and industry insiders, and to share their thoughts and feedback on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Steil said in a news release.

“Good and fair trade deals are vital to Wisconsin,” Steil said. “We must ensure USMCA works for our state and expands trade opportunities for Wisconsin-grown products.”

Jim Massey  

The Registers sell a variety of honey-related products, from various types of honey to beeswax candles, lip balm, bee pollen and lotion bars.