A year ago, planting was anything but easy for much of the region.

Problems began in the disastrous 2019 harvest, when persistent rains and early snow waylaid many farmers from getting their crops out of the field, extending harvest well into 2020 and interrupting planting. Continuing wet conditions made it hard on people and machinery during the 2020 planting season.

This year, farmers around the region tell a much different story.

For many places, precipitation shut off sometime around late summer 2020. That made harvest a breeze and has helped propel planting in 2021.

But it also means that there a lot of fears about whether there is now enough moisture to move this year's crop toward a satisfying harvest. The U.S. Drought Monitor report released on June 3 shows nearly 18% of North Dakota in the exceptional drought category, the worst categorization, with another 59% in the second worst, the extreme drought category.

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The drought isn't quite as bad in South Dakota but it's still causing problems, particularly in the north, where the more than 10% of the state in extreme drought is concentrated. A large portion of Minnesota is abnormally dry, with small percentages in moderate and severe drought.

Reporters at Agweek and the Mitchell Republic talked to farmers about how 2021 planting compares to 2020.

Minnesota producers experience smooth planting season

For many Minnesota producers, including brothers Ben Field and Mitch Field, the 2021 planting season has come to an end. Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, Minn. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
For many Minnesota producers, including brothers Ben Field and Mitch Field, the 2021 planting season has come to an end. Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, Minn. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
For some producers in the state of Minnesota, their 2021 planting season went off without Mother Nature throwing a hitch into their plans — a welcomed change compared to the planting season of 2020.

“2020 was pretty much the polar opposite of this year, where you had to wait for those good days to actually get in the field. Whereas, this year, in comparison, you had a plethora of opportunities,” Ben Field said. ''Last year you had to wait for those good days, where this year you are wishing you had a rain day once in a while. I’d say that’s the biggest change.”

Ben Field and his brother, Mitch Field, farm about 1,000 acres in Erhard, Minn. They grow soybeans and corn and raise alfalfa to feed out to their registered black Angus cattle.

The duo started putting seeds in the ground in late April and finished planting in mid-May. While some producers in their area began planting their acres a little bit earlier, Mitch and Ben opted to wait for soil temperatures to rise. But they didn't stay out of the fields too long.

Overall, the 2021 planting season had much better weather conditions than the planting season for 2020.  Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, MN (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Overall, the 2021 planting season had much better weather conditions than the planting season for 2020. Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, MN (Emily Beal / Agweek)
“Corn took about 10-12 days to come up, because the soil was a little cold, but we have some corn that’s six inches tall already,” Mitch Field said. “The seed doesn’t grow in the bag either; you got to start planting at some point.”

Michael Kloss, the operations manager for Prairie Farms Co., said their operation in Rice, Minn., had a smooth planting season as well. Due to the farm’s location, heavy rainfall does not greatly affect their planting plans.

“In some ways, we are very fortunate to be in the sandy soils that we have, so our planting seasons, like 2020, never really get affected by rainfall because of that.” Kloss said. “We can replant the next day following a one inch rain without a problem.”

Prairie Farms produces a rotation of potatoes, corn, dark red kidney beans and green peas. They began planting green peas on the last day of May, after finishing up corn and dark red kidney beans.

Though many of their acres are under irrigation, Kloss believes the region's drought will affect rye that they plant in their unirrigated areas.

“The majority of our acres are under irrigation, so we are never really impacted by the drought, but our stuff we plant in dry land I think will be,” Kloss said. “It probably won’t be a very good yielding crop because of the drought.”

Neil Rockstad grows sugarbeets, soybeans and spring wheat in Ada, Minn. He began his 2021 planting season the day after Easter, but had to take an extended break because of weather conditions.

"We got a three-day run, then it turned wet and cool for two and a half weeks. We picked it up again the last week of April and had a straight through run planting,” Rockstad said. “It was really pretty nice soil conditions, and field conditions in general were pretty favorable”

Rockstad’s 2021 planting season went much smoother than his 2020 planting season. Like many sugarbeet producers in the region, he was forced to leave some crops unharvested because of excessive rainfall in the fall of 2019.

Some producers are in need of rainfall to help their crops germinate and grow properly. Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, Minn. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
Some producers are in need of rainfall to help their crops germinate and grow properly. Photo taken May 29, 2021, at Erhard, Minn. (Emily Beal / Agweek)
“Going into 2020, we had come off an extremely tough fall of 2019, where we had a lot of unharvested crops. So at the beginning of planting in 2020, we had some crops left in the field. April and May were also very cool,” Rockstad said. “At some points we were planting stuff in unfavorable soil conditions just to get some seeds in the ground and hoping for the best.”

Rockstad is thankful for how his 2021 planting season turned out. However, like many producers in the region, he hopes to see some rain soon.

“We are waiting for rain to get certain crops germinated,. We have just had two very small rains since we got done planting. Just not enough to wet that topsoil,” Rockstad said.

-- Reported by Emily Beal

Planting was much smoother for North Dakota growers in 2021

It’s incredible the difference a single year can make. The grueling harvest of 2019 was followed by a difficult planting season in the spring of 2020. Saturated conditions across the Upper Midwest not only made it challenging to get seed into the ground, but caused other issues to the soil that lasted throughout the entire growing season.

Wheatland, N.D., grower Jason Schatzke said the spring of 2020 was one of the toughest planting seasons he has had to endure.

Jason Schatzke of Wheatland, N.D. (Mike Spieker / Agweek)
Jason Schatzke of Wheatland, N.D. (Mike Spieker / Agweek)
“The weather events during the fall of 2019 left two-thirds of our corn standing in the fields all winter long. The spring of 2020 brought challenges that we’ve never faced before," he said. "We had to harvest the corn. There was zero tillage that was done in the fall of 2019, so prepping the soil in the spring pushed out planting dates extremely late. The spring of 2020 planting didn’t get done until the 15th of June because of the wet conditions we were dealing with.”

Schatzke said wheat, corn and sugarbeets are typically done by May 1 during an average year, or ideally by May 10 at the latest. His soybeans, sunflowers and edible beans are planted last, with a goal of being in by Memorial Day, or around May 25.

“We were a good two to three weeks behind,” said Schatzke of the spring of 2020.

The extremely wet conditions took its toll on not only the soil, but equipment as well.

“The term mudding the crop in would be an understatement. The tractors were having trouble, the combines were having trouble. It was hell putting that crop in the ground last spring,” Schatzke said. “Any time you put mud into the equation, it adds more stress to the equipment. The cost of production went up dramatically in 2020 because of the cost of repairs."

The spring of 2021 was entirely different. Albeit drier than desired, this planting season was just about perfect for many growers in North Dakota.

“We went from one end of the spectrum to the other in 12 months,” Schatzke said.

This year, Schatzke was done planting by May 20.

“Most everything was planted in ideal conditions,” he said. “We had great seedbeds to work with. Everything was seeded properly this spring. Now we’re just waiting for rain. We are really dry.”

Schatzke noted that his farm has not received rain in excess of an inch since Labor Day of last year.

“That was a good thing, because we had all of those sins we had created in the fall of 2019 and the spring of 2020 with those wet conditions. We were able to go in, do some tillage, correct those compaction issues, and level fields back out. We had everything tilled back. Tilled back too much, obviously, with how the spring of 2021 has played out, but we got everything back to where it should be. That left us with really open soils, and then an open winter and, by the first part of March, the snow was gone. That left that soil exposed again.”

With the degradation of the soil, on March 23, Schatzke went back in and applied fertilizer after a wind event.

“We went in right behind that and started seeding our spring wheat. By Easter we had all of the wheat seeded,” he said.

Planting went smoothly from there for Schatzke. Dry conditions and near-perfect weather meant little to no shutdowns and allowed his crop to go in quickly and smoothly.

Jason Schatzke's sugarbeets were planted into cover crops which will later be sprayed. Photo taken May 28, 2021. (Mike Spieker / Agweek)
Jason Schatzke's sugarbeets were planted into cover crops which will later be sprayed. Photo taken May 28, 2021. (Mike Spieker / Agweek)

The same was experienced by Hannaford, N.D., grower Dylan Goplen, who farms 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

“Conditions were completely opposite. The fields were and still are extremely dry. We were able to plant areas that haven't been planted in years. We were also much more efficient with our time this year,” Goplen explained. “Not having to fight the mud and plant around wet spots saves a lot of time. One of the concerns we had this year was ensuring we were getting the seeds in moisture. That led us to no-till about half of our beans into last year's cover crop. Those beans were doing great until they were hit with frost damage on May 27. Any of our beans that were no-tilled into a cover crop or wheat stubble have to be replanted. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but I don't regret our decision after the windstorms we have had this spring.”

Goplen’s experiences in the spring of 2020 also echoed those of Schatzke’s: wet and challenging.

“In 2020, planting conditions were extremely wet. It wasn't because of excess rainfall that spring, but excess rainfall the previous year creating high water tables,” he said. “We also didn't get a chance to work the fields fall of 2019 because most of the soybeans were harvested with snow on the ground, the corn was harvested in March of 2020. All of that led to a wet spring. About half of our farm ended up being preventive plant that was later broadcasted with cover crop. A majority of the fields that were seeded had dozens of wet spots in addition to the normal sloughs that had to be seeded around.”

-- Reported by Mike Spieker

Good season so far in South Dakota, but closely watching the weather

In Gene Stehly’s 41 years of farming in southeast South Dakota fields, this year’s planting season will go down as “one of the best” he’s ever experienced.

The Mitchell area farmer successfully planted 100% of the thousands of acres he produces corn, soybean and wheat by mid-May. In a good year, Stehly manages to plant about 80% of his crops by early June. But the ideal weather in spring 2021 made for what Stehly said were “near perfect planting” conditions.

Gene Stehly discusses the progress of his crops during the spring 2021 planting season on his rural Mitchell farm. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Gene Stehly discusses the progress of his crops during the spring 2021 planting season on his rural Mitchell farm. (Matt Gade / Republic)
“Typically, we have wet springs and things tend to dry off when you need moisture. We only had about two days of rain delay during the whole planting season, which is really rare. We didn’t have to fight mud and sloughy fields,” Stehly said. “I can’t remember the last time that happened.”

Stehly wasn’t the only South Dakota farmer who enjoyed such a successful planting season.

Mike Miller, 53, has been farming in the Freeman, S.D., area for years. Every season brings challenges. But he had no problems planting in 2021.

“I’ve been done for over two weeks,” Miller said earlier this week. “It went so well, we could drive end to end and it went really fast. The conditions were perfect.”

That’s a change from what he’s generally experienced in the last few years, but this year, with limited snow falling in the winter prior and rains sparse in the weeks leading up to planting, it was full steam ahead.

That’s great for starting the year, but the real challenge comes when the growing season ramps up.

“It’s definitely drier than what I would like, but I think we’ve had enough moisture to get the crop to this point. From here and the rest of the season we’re going to have to have rain,” Miller said.

According to USDA’s most recent crop progress report, 98% of South Dakota’s corn crops were planted as of May 28, higher than the state’s 82% average for the time of the year.

Considering Stehly planted 10% of his crops at this time during the state’s wettest year on record in 2019 that saw 36.5 inches of precipitation, he said it’s hard to fathom such an extreme shift in planting this year.

“Our weather is like a rollercoaster,” he said. “I planted in places this year I hadn’t been able to in 20 years.”

Gene Stehly, of rural Mitchell, said spring 2021 was the best year for getting his crops planted but the moisture this summer will be key in the yields they get out of the field. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Gene Stehly, of rural Mitchell, said spring 2021 was the best year for getting his crops planted but the moisture this summer will be key in the yields they get out of the field. (Matt Gade / Republic)
While Stehly’s excitement is high for the fall harvest season given he’s planted all of his crops, he knows it will all hinge on the summer growing season weather, which isn’t exactly off to the start he hoped for.

Like much of the state, southeast South Dakota is currently experiencing drought conditions. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, as of June 1, the Mitchell area was in a “severe drought.” More than 94% of the state is in some sort of abnormally dry designation or worse, including nearly half of the state’s land in severe or extreme drought. One year ago, no part of the state was in severe or extreme drought categories.

The most severe conditions in the state are in the northwest portion of South Dakota — ranging from Buffalo to Lemmon to Mobridge — overlapping from the extreme drought in North Dakota. Elsewhere, Sioux Falls, Huron and Chamberlain were all nearly 2 inches of precipitation behind normal for the month of May, according to the National Weather Service.

“The biggest factor this year is going to be the drought. We’re dry right now all over the country. If we don’t get enough moisture throughout the country, we’re going to have serious issues,” Stehly said. “The next two months will be unprecedented in terms of determining whether we can raise these crops.”

Miller plants about 650 acres each of both corn and soybeans, and while grain prices are strong at the moment, he knows that will only do him good if he can get a healthy harvest out of his land.

“The prices look really good, but that’s because we’re dry, and who knows if we’ll make it to trend line yields,” Miller said.

Chances for rain have been spotty. Miller said the last time his area had a forecast that indicated an 80% chance of rain, he only got five-hundredths of an inch. That’s discouraging, he said, especially with temperatures already on the rise.

Miller said he will start a weed-spraying campaign in his fields to help cut competition for moisture, but producers are relying on having the right amount of rainfall in a timely manner.

“Right now, if we get some rain, we’re going to have a good crop. But you give us three or four weeks of this weather without it and we’ll be done for,” Miller said.

-- Reported by Sam Fosness and Erik Kaufman