All Wet – A Stormy Spring Stymies Farmers in the U.S. Midwest

In much of the Corn Belt, too much rain has left fields too soggy to sow.

Midwest agriculture farming corn 2013 precipitation
Image courtesy of Midwest Regional Climate Center
Iowa had its wettest April on record, and much of the Midwest saw precipitation levels at 150 percent to 300 percent of normal. Farmers have delayed planting crops because of soggy fields. Click image to enlarge.

The fields in Illinois are quiet – the calm after the storm, as it is.

In the country’s second-leading corn state, farmers had planted only 7 percent of the corn crop as of May 5. By this time last year, nearly nine out of every 10 acres of corn had been sown.

“Crop progress is about as slow as it’s been in the last decade or so,” said Emerson Nafziger, a crop production specialist at the University of Illinois.

Farmers in other key agricultural states can commiserate. Each of the 11 crops that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tracks in its weekly Crop Progress report is behind schedule, as of May 5. Corn and soybeans, grains and peanuts, even rice and cotton – all trail the five-year average for the percent of the crop planted.

“All this delay is due to too much rain,” Nafziger told Circle of Blue.

It might be hard to believe after a year of record-setting drought, but so much rain fell on some Midwestern states this spring that farmers could swim in their fields – or sled on them. Snow covered parts of Iowa last week and the state had its wettest April on record. Michigan also set a monthly precipitation record, while Minnesota endured its fourth coldest April.

Even in Kansas and Nebraska, two states almost entirely in drought, cold temperatures have frozen farm operations.

“Temperatures have been so far below normal and the fields so wet that farmers haven’t been able to plant any significant portion of their crop,” Julie Schmidt, of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, told Circle of Blue.

Nationally, just 12 percent of the corn crop is in the ground, compared with 69 percent last year and 47 percent for the five-year average.

The longer farmers wait to sow seeds, the worse for production. Nafziger said a crop’s yield potential drops with a shorter growing season. As long as farmers can get to work in the next two weeks, the yield damage should be limited, he said.

If farmers decide that the prospects for corn are not lucrative, they can switch to soybeans, Nafziger said. Soybean yields do not fall as severely as corn yields after a late planting.

Author: Brett Walton  is a Seattle-based reporter for Circle of Blue. He writes our Federal Water Tap, a weekly breakdown of U.S. policy. Interests: Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Pricing, Infrastructure.

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