This year’s moisture of epic proportions has been devastating for some parts of South Dakota.
The problems actually began last year, according to SDSU Extension Soils Field Specialist Anthony Bly. Some areas picked up a great deal of rain last summer, and going into fall, combines were getting stuck, equipment was leaving ruts in fields and growers in those areas experienced challenging harvest conditions.
“Many producers that I talked to just wanted last year to end. I just get it in the record books, and let’s get on with life,” Bly says.
“Throughout the winter we talked about how to repair the soils that had field ruts or tracks,” he says. “The worst case scenario was that it would be so wet that we couldn’t fix them. Lo and behold, that’s the situation we ended up with.”
The combination of heavy snows, late snows, low temperatures and excessive, record-breaking precipitation created flooding of fields and damage to infrastructure.
Some areas are worse than others, Bly notes. “Lincoln and Turner Counties are bad, along with McCook, Lake, Moody, Brookings and western Minnehaha.” Farmers in parts of northern South Dakota are in better shape.
Many fields unplanted
Spring planting was delayed in many fields and simply impossible in others. “We have a considerable amount of prevented plant acres,” Bly says. “As I drive around the state it’s pretty common to see fields that didn’t get planted.”
Bly urges farmers to consider growing cover crops on the unplanted fields.
“The soil has a whole ecosystem full of microbiology and fungi. The activity of those organisms is really dependent upon a living root because there’s a great exchange that takes place between living roots and the biology in the soil,” he says.
“Living roots are giving up carbon and the microbes need that. They’re bringing nutrients to the root, so that process is inhibited when we don’t grow a crop.”
Weeds are all too eager to use those nutrients but that’s the last thing farmers want.
Bare soil isn’t desirable either because of the potential for wind and water erosion. The nutrients that may have been applied are vulnerable to getting into the environment where we don’t want them.
“Another factor is the possibility of fallow syndrome in the following year,” says Bly. “It’s a syndrome caused by the fact that we didn’t have that living root in the soil. The fungi population decreases and so for the next year the plants, especially corn, could be deficient in phosphorous.”
Cover crops to the rescue
In unplanted fields, cover crops can help prevent weed and erosion control. They also help improve soil health.
Bly says that in fields where a cover crop was planted last fall, made it through the winter and started growing this spring, soil moisture problems were reduced. “Some of those fields were in really good shape for planting this spring because they had a living root already there. They had a plant consuming moisture, and it was helping moderate that issue.”
Cover crops that survive the winter include cereal rye, winter wheat and triticale, Bly notes.
According to the University of Minnesota Extension, another option is to plant a cover crop that terminates with the first frost, such as oats, turnips, barley and radishes. Farmers will want to seed as early as possible to control weeds, but if they’re planted too early, they may produce seed.
In addition, farmers are advised to “check which residual herbicides might be in your soil to give cover crops the best chance of success. There is typically little or no information on herbicide labels related to the establishment of a cover crop after herbicide application. In general, herbicides with longer residual activity have greater potential to hinder cover crop establishment.” (Cover Crop Options for Prevent Plant Acres & Drowned-Out Areas, Anna Cates and Liz Stahl, University of Minnesota Extension, published in No-Till Farmer, June 7, 2019)
On May 31, the USDA announced a special June 28, 2019, batching period for assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). It provides financial and technical help, including up to $5,000 for cover crops. Farmers should visit their local NRCS office for details.
It’s important that farmers talk to their insurance agents about their cover crop plans, as well.
While there’s no upside to the current conditions for farmers, Bly believes there may be a lesson to learn on soil health.
“If the soil is flooding, it doesn’t matter how healthy the soil is, it’s still flooded,” Bly says. “But for the most part, our upland soils and other soils with better soil health were easier for farmers to get into. Planters could roll across them more easily. The extensively tilled fields were soft, mushy and saturated—and didn’t support equipment.”
“I think we can learn a lesson about the importance of soil health and having good, structured, healthy soils that are resilient to things like this. And we learned how a winter annual cover crop could help conditions in the spring,” says Bly.
He reiterates that when soil is flooded, it doesn’t matter how much cover crop is planted or how healthy the soil is.
“We can’t do anything to control the environment, the climate or the rain. All farmers know this—that it is what it is—and we have to deal with it,” he says.
Bly has faith in the resilience of South Dakota farmers.
“We’ve got a very strong bunch of producers,” he says. “I think the younger ones learn from the older ones. The older ones have experienced this. It has happened before. It happened this year, and it probably will happen again.”
“South Dakota farmers are resilient, tough and very humble people, and they’ll figure out how to get through it,” he says.
But he urges farmers to obtain help if they need it. “They’re tough, but they have stress, as well. Just find somebody to talk to.”
Avera offers a 24-hour Farm and Rural Stress Hotline that’s free and confidential at 1-800-691-4336. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Jim Woster and others have endorsed and emphasized the importance of this resource (https://www.avera.org/news-media/news/2019/avera-offers-farm-and-rural-stress-hotline/).