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South Dakota farm and ranch hangs in there with half of normal rain

Farmers Larry Aker, 71, and his son, Steve, 41, are looking for more rain on a farm near Waubay, S.D., in the neighborhood where their family has farmed for 100 years. Corn and soybeans were hanging in there as of June 19, 2021, but have had about half of the rain they should have since April. The National Agricultural Statistics Service on June 28, 2021, shows 25% of South Dakota corn and 23% of the soybeans n good to excellent.

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Blowing soil from a neighbor’s field covered a new planting of alfalfa, preventing emergence on about half of a parcel. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

WAUBAY, S.D. — To get a good corn and soybean crop, Larry and Steve Aker of Waubay, S.D., are going to need a little more help than they’ve been getting.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service indicated northeast South Dakota remained in drought as of the June 24, 2021, report date. Corn and soybeans were hanging in there but have had about half of the rain they should have since April. The National Agricultural Statistics Service Crop Progress report on June 28, 2021, showed 25% of South Dakota corn and 23% of the soybeans in good to excellent.

For the Akers, it’s been a story of spotty or missing rains.

Larry, 71, has been farming full-time for 49 years. He’s dealt with the vagaries of weather — and would do it all over again. His wife, Mary Ann, is a teacher. He farms with his son, Steve, 42, whose wife, Jennifer, is an accountant. They have a 12-year, who is interested in the farm, but young.

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Larry Aker, 71, and his son, Steve, 41, farm and ranch near Waubay, S.D., in Day County. Their crops and background-feeding pastures were dry but hanging in there with timely rains as of June 19, 2021. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Larry’s grandparents started farming in the area in 1920. Larry graduated high school in 1967 and came home to farm in 1971, after earning his animal science degree at South Dakota State University. And Steve, 41, graduated high school in 1998, and went on to SDSU in 2002 to get a business degree, and soon came back to the farm.

The Akers raise some grain — primarily corn and soybeans, with a little wheat to get wheat to get the straw. The 2021 planting conditions were “as good as we’ve had for many years,” Larry said. “You could go from one end of the field to the other without having to go around a bunch of sloughs.”

The Aker farm received about 4 inches of rain early in April.

“We’d just started putting the crop in,” Larry said. “We waited a couple weeks to go again."

They had another 3 inches — a couple of rains of an inch plus, a couple of showers In a typical June, the Akers would likely have received double that rainfall.

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The Akers family near Waubay, S.D., on June 19, 2021, rotated cattle off from a “tame” pasture and moved them to a native pasture. The tame pasture could come back quickly with rain, while the native pasture would take more time, Larry Aker said. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“The wind blows pretty hard,’ Steve said. “A lot of 90-degree days, so far,” he said, on June 19, 2021. In a followup interview on June 28, 2021, the had about .35 inches at the headquarters on June 27, 2021. Neighbors a few miles west had up to 2 inches.

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Larry observed that a lot of wind erosion has happened.

“This spring we’ve had three days where, basically, it’s blown all day long,” he said.

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The Akers mostly background-feed or graze calves to sell at about 900-pounds, for finishing in feedlots elsewhere. They are finishing this small bunch for an area locker plant. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

He had a new seeding of alfalfa next to a neighbor’s field that was blowing. He’d broadcast-seeded the alfalfa and barely covered. The seed was slower to go, waiting for rain. “It actually covered some of the new seeding up, and it looks like it’s killed probably 15 acres of it,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before.”.

Livin' rain-to-rain

As of June 19, 2021, the Aker crops still had some pep. Some of the lighter-textured soils on hilltops were showing some moisture stress.

“The pastures, the ones we had cattle in and rotated out of, they’re not coming back,” Larry said. “We’re all right yet.”

“It might be one of them years where you’ve got to live from one rain to the next,” Larry said.

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Corn was in fair condition in the Waubay, S.D., area,, despite sub-normal rainfall levels as of June 19, 2021. Farmer Larry Aker and his son, Steve, said regular rains will be needed for the crop to survive. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

No matter how dry it is this year, conditions aren’t as bad as what Larry remembers from drought 1976.

“I remember the crops were started, and then it froze — froze a lot of them off. And then never got any rain after that. There just wasn’t much of anything,” Larry said. “No crops and very little hay.”

Today’s situation isn’t nearly that bad, but it’s a worry.

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Larry Aker, 71, said his farm had received only about half of the rain it normally since a 4-inch rain in early April. The corn was hanging in there on June 19, 2021, but would need regular rain to survive. Still, it’s nothing like the 1976 drought he went through. Photo taken at rural Waubay, S.D., June 19, 2021. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“I think a guy got spoiled some of these years when it rained all the time — You got a couple inches a week. It was wet all the time. Now you’ve went a month with only a couple of showers. I think anybody that grows crops, you’re going to have that in the back of your mind all of the time.”

“It’s getting dry,” Steve said. “The light ground is showing it, the heavy ground is holding out. We could use it.”

Crop prices are strong for the fall, but it’s hard to market before the crop yield is more predictable. The past few years prices haven’t been good.

Cattle prospects

A big part of the Akers’ bottom line is cattle.

The Akers background-feed cattle in the wintertime. They sell them in the spring and acquire more, starting May 15, to place on pasture in the summertime.

Cattle prices have been “off,” with many factors going into it. Congress is studying the issue, but doesn’t seem get to the bottom of the problem.

“It’s kind of controlled from the top,” Steve said.

The pastures have hung in there, so far.

“The rotation is a good thing for it. You get ‘em off and they look a little tough,” Steve said. “You get a rain, they’ll come back. Don’t beat ’em down too bad.”

The cattle had moved to the native grasses on June 20.

“That’s going to need the drink sooner,” Steve said. “The tame grass will come back some.”

Cattle prices are projected to be better by fall, but Larry isn’t sure. On June 19, 2021, Larry said the 900-pound background-fed steer would bring about $1.30 per pound at the sale barn in Aberdeen, S.D., where the family usually markets them.

Larry thinks the packers determine the price.

”I don’t know what’s going to happen this year with all the cattle going off of pasture because of drought,” he said.

Here are state-by-state crop progress and condition reports as of June 28, 2021, as reported by NASS:

South Dakota

Topsoil moisture is 45% very short, 45% short, 10% adequate, and 0% surplus. Subsoil was 41% very short, 46% short, 13% adequate and none surplus.

Corn was ranked 4% very poor, 21% poor, 41% fair, 23% good and 1% excellent.

Soybeans were ranked 5% poor, 18% poor, 41% fair, 25% good and 1% excellent. Soybean blooming was about equal to the five-year average at 10%.

Winter wheat was rated 50% very poor to poor, with 97% headed, just ahead of average.

Spring wheat was rated 49% poor to very poor, with 41% fair, and only 10% good (none excellent). About 79% had headed, compared to 67% average.

Pasture and range was 23% very poor, 45% poor, 29% fair, 3% good and 0% excellent.

North Dakota

Topsoil is 24% very short, 42% short, 33% adequate and 1% surplus. Subsoil is 39% very short, 39% short, 22% adequate and none surplus.

Corn condition is 22% poor or very poor, with 38% fair, and 40% good to excellent.

Soybeans are ranked 31% poor or very poor, 44% fair, and 25% good to excellent. 2% of the soybeans were blooming, less than the 6% five-year average for the date.

Spring wheat condition was rated 19% very poor, 25% poor, 36% fair, 18% good and 2% excellent. About 42% were headed, compared to the 36% average.

Durum was rated 19% poor to very poor; with 19% headed, compared to the 25% average. Winter wheat was ranked 39% poor to very poor, with 73% headed, compared to 80% average.

Canola was 46% poor to very poor, 28% fair, and 24% good. Only 2% was rated excellent. About 34% was blooming, near the 37% average for the date.

Sugar beets were rated 63% good to excellent.

Barley is only 16% good to excellent, with 41% headed, ahead of the 36% average for the date.

Dry edible peas are 55% good to excellent, with 26% blooming, behind the 49% average for the date.

Sunflowers are rated 27% good to excellent, with 80% emerged, slightly behind the 87% five-year average.

Dry bean conditions are rated 38% poor to very poor; 46% fair,15% good and 1% excellent. About 2% was blooming, up from 3% last year.

Alfalfa condition is very poor or poor on 58% of the state. First cutting was 54% complete, compared to 51% last year. Pasture and range condition swerve ranked 33% very poor, 32% poor, 27% fair, 8% good and 0% excellent.

Minnesota

Topsoil moisture conditions were short to very short in 75% of the state, 24% adequate and 1% surplus. Subsoil moisture is very short, 22%; short, 47% and adequate, 30% and surplus on 1%.

Corn condition declined to 43% good to excellent, down from the previous week’s 50%. Soybean conditions declined to 45% good to excellent, compared to 53% the week before.

Spring wheat is 95% joined, 4 days ahead of average. About 84% had headed, 10 days ahead of average. Spring wheat condition declined to 29% good to excellent, compared to the previous week’s 48%

Dry beans were 12% blooming, with condition at 48% good to excellent, compared to 56% the week before.

Sunflowers were 55% good to excellent, compared to 66% the week before.

Sugar beets are 69% good to excellent.

Alfalfa was 14% completed in its second cutting. Hay condition declined to 18% good to excellent, down from 22% the week before.

Montana

Producers are debating cutting grin for crops for hay and reducing livestock herds, according to reports. About 91% of the state is in a drought, with topsoil adequate to surplus in 22% of the state, down from 43% the previous week. Subsoil moisture is rated 30% adequate to surplus.

Spring wheat was booted at 55% complete, slightly ahead of average. The crop was rated 28% poor to very poor, 41% fair and 21% good to excellent. Pasture and range was 70% poor or very poor, a downturn from 54% the week before.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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