Washed out: Farmers forced to make tough decisions with water-logged fields

WORTHINGTON -- Paul Henning of rural Okabena is marking the 50th anniversary of his farming career, and while the milestone might be worth celebrating, Henning and farmers across the Midwest have thus far found little to celebrate this spring.

060119NDG WetFarm Fields web.jpg
Flooded farm fields like this one six miles north of Reading on McCall Avenue and 140th Street are common across the region. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON - Paul Henning of rural Okabena is marking the 50th anniversary of his farming career, and while the milestone might be worth celebrating, Henning and farmers across the Midwest have thus far found little to celebrate this spring.

Mother Nature continues to open up the clouds, dumping more rain on already water-logged farm fields.

“Wet, wet, wet,” Henning said of his farm fields Wednesday morning as rain continued to fall. Normally, the crop and livestock farmer would have all of his corn and soybeans in the ground by now, but this year - and recent years - have been anything but normal.

Instead of checking on crop progress, Henning drove around Wednesday morning capturing photographs of his flooded fields. He then went straight to his insurance agent, showed him the photos and discussed options.

Henning can either plant corn at this late date and assume great risk through harvest with reduced insurance coverage, or opt to declare prevent plant. The latter means he can collect fully on his crop insurance, but he won’t be able to plant a cash crop on the land. Leaving the soil exposed isn’t a good idea, though, as that could lead to weed growth, fallow syndrome and erosion concerns.


Henning’s best option is to seed cover crops.

“That’s kind of the route, I think, on what’s left,” he said Wednesday, noting he has about 25 percent of his corn crop yet to plant. “It’s really hard to tell when it will dry up.”

Deadlines for crop insurance were pushing farmers to think and act quickly this week, as the crop insurance cutoff for southern Minnesota was Friday for corn planting. They can still get crop insurance up to 25 days after that date, but it won’t be full coverage. The crop insurance cutoff for soybeans in southern Minnesota is June 10. Farmers who chose to declare prevent plant on corn acres receive 55% of their corn coverage through crop insurance. The prevent plant payment for soybeans after June 10 is 60%.

Planting has been a challenge across southern Minnesota and much of the Midwest this spring. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Minnesota Crop Progress report issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 66% of the state’s corn crop was planted as of Sunday - eight days behind last year, when 91% of the crop was planted. Just 35% of soybeans were planted as of Sunday - compared to 75% a year ago. Topsoil moisture supplies were rated 53% surplus statewide.

For Henning, this week was decision time.

“We’ve got corn that’s in the planter and needs to be taken out of the planter so we can try to plant some beans as soon as it’s dry enough,” he said. “I talked to the seed dealer to see if they’d take any of the seed back. That doesn’t sound too promising.”

Henning was told he could get some bins to store the seed until next spring, but it’s up to him to make sure it’s in a climate-controlled place where mice and rats can’t get at it.

With the corn seed going into storage, Henning now has the expense of buying new seed - likely oats or rye if he can get it. Those crops can be planted on his prevented plant corn acres, but he’ll have to wait until Nov. 1 to harvest or graze them.


“Beings we do have livestock, that’s something we can utilize,” he said. “My son has a stock cow herd, so we’re working together to get something for feed so we can keep doing what we do.”

Their alfalfa crop on higher ground looks good, Henning noted. If it dries up and stays dry long enough, they’ll be able to get it cut and baled.

Henning said Wednesday he could use a couple of weeks of dry weather - with no rain - to get his fields dry enough to plant the rest of his 2019 crop.

Farming since 1969, Henning has never seen a spring like this one, where it’s been wet for so long.

“We started with flooding in the spring and on some of the ground, the water has just not gone off because of the continual rain,” he said. “Even some that we planted is still under water.

“After the last couple of years, we should be getting kind of used to it, but you never get used to it,” he added.

Henning is trying to remain positive, and said farmers need to be patient.

“It just seems like things do work out and you can’t conquer it all in a short time,” he said.


Investment made, corn will go in Rural Bigelow farmer and Pioneer seed dealer Matt Russell said Friday morning it sounds like most farmers will try to plant their corn this next week if they can.

“To get the seed in the ground and, if it’s a failure, crop insurance is still going to pay more than prevent plant is going to pay,” Russell said. “There are some guys with herbicide and nitrogen on the field, and that can only go to corn so they really don’t have a choice.

“There’s some investments into the corn crop already - without having the seed in the ground,” he added.

With a more positive looking market forecast for corn than soybeans, Russell said he’s hearing from farmers who want to switch from soybeans to corn on some acres.

“If they can harvest a shorter crop of $5 corn, they’re still going to make more money (than) soybeans,” Russell said. With plenty of 91- to 93-day maturity corn on hand, he said farmers have been swapping out their longer-season varieties to the shorter season options.

Weather Service says drier days ahead Mike Gillispie, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., said the next week or two is expected to trend toward more normal temperatures, with a few days potentially warmer than normal.

“For the most part, it’s going to be dry,” he said, adding that there are chances (30% to 40%) for thunderstorms early Saturday morning and late Tuesday night. “It’s not going to be 100 square miles or four states getting over an inch at a time.”

A little wind with temperatures ranging from 75 to 85 degrees will certainly help to dry up the fields so farmers can get back to planting.

“It’s going to be trending in the right direction,” Gillispie said.

The National Weather Service had recorded 7.76 inches of rain for Worthington in May. While that is not a new monthly record - that was set in 2012 with 8.77 inches for the month - Worthington has set a new record for precipitation during the first five months of the year at 18.56 inches. The previous record, set in 2012, was 17.11 inches. NWS records for the city of Worthington date back only to 1972.

Planting delayed across the Corn Belt Corn planting across the nation’s top 18 corn producing states is behind schedule in all states but Texas and Pennsylvania, the USDA reported Tuesday. Minnesota, at 66% planted, is faring better than several other top producing states, including Illinois (35% planted), Indiana (22%), Ohio (22%), South Dakota (25%) and Wisconsin (46%). Iowa farmers had 76% of their corn crop planted as of Sunday, down from 95% a year ago, while North Dakota farmers were at 63% of corn acres planted, compared to 83% a year ago.

Liz Stahl, University of Minnesota Extension crops specialist in Worthington, said farmers need to be in contact with their insurance provider about their options.

If farmers chose not to take prevent plant on their corn acres, Stahl said there is a 25-day window in which they can still plant corn, but without full insurance coverage.

“We’re talking planting corn in June, which is not a great thing in our state. It’s a high-risk deal,” Stahl said. “Is it going to mature before we have a killing frost? I don’t know. Hopefully we have more normal temperatures. We take a significant yield hit by planting corn this late. We take a significant hit with an early frost. And, we could be dealing with pests - little black cutworms could be detrimental to (late-planted) corn.

“It’s tough decisions each farmer needs to make,” she added.

Stahl recommends farmers put a cover crop on their prevent plant acres just to prevent weed growth and the potential for fallow syndrome.

“If there’s no living roots out there, fungi doesn’t survive and it could impact your roots next year,” she said.

Cover crops also help control erosion, she noted.

“Just make sure you’re in compliance with crop insurance on what you could plant and when it could be planted,” Stahl said.

Farmers have more time to get their soybeans planted, as the cutoff date for prevent plant is June 10.

“We just need to have a nice window for conditions to dry down enough for people to get out there,” Stahl said. “We keep getting these shots of rain - it’s a very frustrating cycle.”

Stahl encourages farmers to visit University of Minnesota Extension resources online at

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Mark Scheepstra plants corn just west of Nobles County 9 and 280th Street on a recent dry day. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

Related Topics: FARMING
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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