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Local farmers forced to contend with cool, wet planting conditions
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It doesn’t matter much with which farmer you’re talking this year, there seems to be agreement that extremely rainy cool weather this spring has presented its share of challenges. Whether it’s planting corn and soybeans, trying to harvest hay or working with some of the area’s specialty crops, everyone has to work hard to adapt to the conditions.

A lot of corn and soybeans were planted in Crawford County this year, but the exact amount is largely a matter of guesswork at this point, according to John Baird, the Director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s Crawford County office. Baird was willing to make some estimates on the spring planting based on conversations with farmers and observations he has made around the county. The FSA official feels that as of Thursday, June 13, about 100 percent of the corn that is going to be planted this season is planted and over 80 percent of the soybeans that would be planted were planted. He also estimated that just two percent of the corn crop that farmers had originally intended to plant would not be planted. That unplanted acreage would mainly be bottomland along the Kickapoo River and other low-lying areas.

“It may not seem like a lot, but it’s a different story if most of your farm is that bottomland,” Baird pointed out.
Crawford County’s UW Extension Ag Agent Vance Hougan thought the land not planted, which had originally intended to be planted, might be as high as 10 percent.

Both Baird and Haugen noted that the FSA office does not deal with all farmers planting in the county since some choose not to report plantings to the office or participate in the federal farm programs. Baird said more exact numbers of planted acres will not be known until July 15, which is the deadline for reporting planting for crop insurance.

How many unplanted acres?

Wayne Burkum, owner of Burkum Milling in Soldiers Grove, believes the amount of unplanted acreage is much larger. He estimates as much as 15 to 20 percent of the land famers intended to plant in Crawford County may be unplanted at this point. He based his estimate on what he’s hearing from farmers and what he’s seeing in the countryside.  
Burkum said a lot of the unplanted acres are valley lands near the Kickapoo River or the Wisconsin River.
One large row crop farmer, Daryl Aspenson, left over 20 percent of the acres, which he had intended to plant, unplanted. Aspenson decided not  to plant past May 31, the last date planting under crop insurance without a penalty in coverage for late planting.

Aspenson did plant corn on 1,650 acres this year. He chose to collect Prevent Plant insurance on 450 acres rather than try to plant the acres and have the federal crop insurance reduced by one percent for every day that the crop is planted after the May 31 deadline.

By not planting the acres, Aspenson takes a significantly lower payment in coverage. However, he saves substantially on his planting and harvesting costs, which offsets the lower coverage payments. The Prevent Plant portion of the federally-backed crop insurance will pay Aspenson about 60 percent of the 80 percent coverage he will have on his planted acreage.

Risks assessed

The experienced grower said he made the decision considering the risk he would be taking on early frost and other factors. Aspenson plans some soil improvement for the unused 450 acres. He will kill weeds at the end of July and seed rye grasses and radishes with a no-till seeder. He hopes to capture some nitrogen with the radishes, especially on acres that were already fertilized.

How bad was planting this year?

“It was the most difficult time I’ve ever had planting in 40 years,” Aspenson said. “The rains were so timely or should I say untimely. It was just difficult.”

Delayed start date

Aspenson said they could not begin planting until May 7 this year when the average start time for planting is April 20. He’s hoping to not have a repeat of the cold summer of 2009.

While Aspenson says the planted corn is looking okay it’s probably not as tall as it should be by this point in his opinion.

“It’s got us concerned,” Aspenson said. He noted in wetter spots the corn is yellower. Like others, he’s hoping that with some heat and drier weather, the yellow will come out of it. He also may have some nitrogen fertilizer applied, if there’s a lack of nitrogen in certain areas.

“It’s a challenging year,” Aspenson said. “We just keep praying for warmer weather and warmer nights. The corn needs to have some BTUs behind it. It can turn out fine, but at this point there’s a little concern.”
Planting completed

Ferryville’s Swede Knutson another large row crop grower planted 1,400 acres of corn and 300 acres of soybeans.

“We’ve been done for awhile,” Knutson said of the planting. “I’m not saying it’s ideal, but we got everything out to grow. It’s not all a pretty sight. There’s more yellow color (in the corn leaves) than you’d like to see.”

However, Knutson is optimistic the crops will work out. He acknowledged like other farmers that the crops are a couple of weeks behind the average this point in the season. He also noted that “the seeds are better off in the ground than in the box.” Knutson said that if he had waited until the conditions were ideal he’d just have started planting toward the end of May.

Like Aspenson, Knutson will side dress the crops with more nitrogen and has plans to start that soon.

Local dairy farmers have faced similar problems to row crop farmers, when it came to planting their corn and even more problems as they faced a need to harvest hay in the wet weather.

Ed Doskocil, who milks cows on a farm south of Gays Mills, also has corn that is yellowed. He figures it’s one of three things—a lack of nitrogen, compacted soil or it was planted to wet.

Slower planting

While Doskocil had finished most of the planting on May 12, the local farmer still has an acre and a half to get planted this week because it was too wet to plant initially.

If corn planting was tough in the wet conditions, the first crop hay harvest may have been even tougher.

“We were joking there was a three-load quota.” Doskocil said. “It seemed like every time we got three loads in, it would start to rain.”

The heavy wagonloads of hay and tractors did damage to hay fields, Doskocil acknowledged. The long haylage bags were very difficult to use in the mud.

Doskocil had an interesting way of summing up the first crop hay harvest.

“We started on June 3 and gave up last Friday,” is the way he put it.

A bright spot was the condition of the cows through the weather. Early in the season the fluctuating temperatures were a bit of a problem, according to the local dairy farmer. However, the more constant cooler temperatures are perfect for the cows.

Doskocil thinks the conditions currently make harvesting dry hay impossible, even if it were to stop raining. He believes that the ground is so wet the moisture will be sucked up into the drying hay.

Fellow dairy farmer Tom Kearns, who milks 150 cows in Seneca Township, has also struggled with the cool wet spring.
Planting corn?

“It’s been a struggle to say the least,” Kearns said on Monday night. “I’m finishing right now and putting in the last five acres.”

In all, Kearns will have 160 acres of corn planted this spring.

Better up top

Unlike some of the other farmers, Kearns’ ridge top corn is up and growing looks good, “surprisingly good given the conditions under which it went in.”

Like most other farmers Kearns’ first-crop hay was late being harvested. In 21 years of harvesting hay, he could not remember the first crop ever being this late. Normally, the first crop is cut in the first week in May, this year it’s a full three weeks behind. Not only is it late, Kearns said the delayed maturity negatively impacted the quality of the hay’s nutritional value.

While Kearns got five cuttings for the only  time ever last year, he said he’d feel lucky to get the usual four cuttings this year. He did note that the second crop is starting to look good with nice sunny warmer days this week.

With the drought last year, Kearns like others fed out more hay than usual and wound up buying hay and haylage. That’s something that he never had to do in the past. The local dairy farmer is definitely out to replenish the hay supply as much as he can this year.

The plan is put the rest of the hay up as dry hay in round bales.

Like Doskocil, Kearns agreed the cattle were doing well in the cooler weather. He also said the rotational grazing is working well with adequate moisture in the pastures.

Everything can change

Chris Olson, from Olson Feeds in Seneca, said the season was “a roller coaster ride for farmers so far.” He estimated the growing season for corn was about a week or two behind, but noted that could change in a hurry if the weather got warmer.

“A lot comes down to what happens in August or September,” Olson said.

Olson lauded the improved genetics of the seeds that are very “resilient to a variety of conditions” these days.
However, there’s a little more to agriculture in Crawford County than commodity row crops and dairy farms, vegetable growers like Driftless Organics have faced their own set of challenges in the cooler wet spring.

One of Driftless Organic’s owners, Josh Engel, said that getting full days of planting accomplished, when the rain has let off, has allowed the operation to stay caught up on the vegetable crops. However, the operation is behind on its row crop planting, which incudes sunflowers for oil, sweet corn and a few other crops.

Driftless has already harvested and sold cilantro and spinach. Engel said green onions and kohlrabi are ready for harvest this week.

One worker at Driftless joked during the lunch break on Monday that they were probably the only farm in the county that experienced an arugula crop failure this year.

Driftless farms about 200 acres in total with about 40 acres in intensive vegetable production. The other 160 acres includes the row crops some cover crops and hay for mulch in the vegetable operation.

Like the other farms, Driftless has some bright spots due to the weather. One positive coming from the cooler wet weather is solid broccoli and cabbage crops. On the other hand, vegetables that like warmer weather, like tomatoes and peppers, are a little slower than usual, according to Engel.

Unfortunately, one of Driftless Organics’ signature crops, a wide variety of unique potatoes, is being negatively impacted by the wet ground. The operation was able to plant a couple of acres of potatoes on sandy ground near the Kickapoo River, but the main planting is being delayed by wet ground at present. Engel is concerned about the viability of the cut and readied seed potatoes, if they are not in the ground soon.

Another area grower, Star Valley Flowers, is also busy adapting to the cool wet spring.

Star Valley Flowers owner John Zehrer sees positives and negatives in the conditions. One of the hardest things Star Valley is grappling with is the radical difference from the extremely warm and early season last year.

“We’re coming off one of the earliest years we’ve ever had to one of the latest years we’ve ever had,” Zehrer explained.

The veteran flower grower used the peony crop as an example. While he has kept cut peonies in a cooler and brought them into bloom as late as the July 4 for a large farmers market in Chicago in the past, this year’s peony harvest, which is just nearing its peak, will probably be concluded around July Fourth. Zehrer fully anticipates cutting the flowers on July 4, which had never happened previously.

On the other hand, the late season meant that many flowers normally on hand for Mother’s Day weekend were not around this year.

“We sort of missed all of May because of the cooler weather,” Zehrer said. However, a delayed lilac crop meant there was no pressure from frost usually faced by an earlier crop.

Season compressed

Zehrer said the moisture was no problem in growing his crops this year, but presented the biggest problems in planting. However, even in planting, Star Valley Flowers benefitted from a very late fall which allowed them to do an extra month of groundwork in fields that was already done when spring arrived this year.

One thing the delayed start did was compress seasons, so lots of the product has to be harvested in just a month-and-a-half rather the two-and-a-half months it normally takes.

“We have the moisture, so this could turn into a very good growing season for us.”

Zehrer is particularly excited about the expanding aronia crop he is growing on his farm and an adjoining  property. Much of the crop planted in last year’s drought survived to thrive in the wet spring conditions.

Aronia is a berry high in antioxidants that can be used as juice, juice blend, and dried fruit and in baking, according to Zehrer. He sees the crop as a great potential and hopes more acres can be planted in the area to develop a market for it.