DTN Field Roundup

Planting Gets Underway as Farmers Adjust to State and Regional Lockdowns

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The view from farmers' cabs as they ready fields for planting are proving to be a respite from the chaos of a pandemic and struggling agricultural markets. (Photo courtesy Kenny Reinke)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- The spring of 2020 has become an extraordinary time, requiring unprecedented measures, and agriculture is no exception.

No one knows it better than southeastern Idaho farmer Dan Lakey, who is on a 1,500-mile roundtrip expedition to the Canadian border to pick up one of two urgently needed air seeders, purchased last fall, when the world was still normal.

"We are currently trying to get them back to Idaho, and it has been very difficult to do with all the coronavirus restrictions and closures," Lakey explained. "We are taking a semi, a pilot car and a motorhome, so that we don't have to stay at hotels or sleep in the vehicles if no hotels are open or available."

Once that trek is over, Lakey will turn to another adventure -- getting his second air seeder home from Nebraska.

In this month's Field Roundup, DTN Agronomy Advisers, a trusted group of farmers and ranchers from across the Midwest and South, detailed the ways they have adjusted their spring planting in this sudden age of state and regional lockdowns, spiking unemployment and faltering markets.

For some, things remain mostly normal; for others, life has suddenly been filled with obstacles and anxiety. But for all them, the oft-stressful task of spring planting promises to be a welcome relief, distraction -- and even a privilege.

"I do feel fortunate being a farmer, as I was hauling corn this week and working on spring equipment," mused Mark Nowak, who farms in south-central Minnesota. "So still at full employment."

PLANTING PROGRESS

Some planting is underway, such as a smattering of oat fields, farmers in Illinois and Nebraska reported. Northeastern Colorado farmer Marc Arnusch had planted all his malt barley and spring wheat fields.

In southwestern Indiana, Scott Wallis planted some soybeans late last week, and rolled out the corn planter this Monday -- and he wasn't alone. "There are more planters moving on the roads than there are cars," he said, a first for his typically congested area.

Farther south, corn planting was well underway in Texas, reported Mike Lass, who farms and ranches in the Texas Panhandle. But in parts of the Mississippi Delta, continued rainfall and flooding has left some farmers completely stalled.

"We've surpassed 2019 in terms of wet weather," reported Charles Williams, who farms in eastern Arkansas. "We normally like to be in the field by March 1st, if not before. We've had only three days in the field this year. When coupled with the fact that we were able to do very little in the way of fall field preparation, we are behind."

Soggy weather stalled northeastern Oklahoma farmer Zack Rendel's planting two weeks past normal, even as farmer Kenneth Rose was praying for rain for his wheat just across the state, in the western Panhandle. "Most wheat fields are trying to green up, but stress is showing," Rose said.

The majority of the Agronomy Advisers reported that they are still waiting for warmer or drier soils to plant. In the meantime, some are spreading manure, applying anhydrous ammonia, baling corn stalks, applying burndown herbicides and pre-emergence, topdressing wheat, doing tillage and servicing equipment.

For cattle producers, the confusing plummet in cattle prices is an added stressor to calving season and spring cattle sales.

"The cattle situation is a train wreck," said Texas's Lass. "Lots of wheat pasture calves still grazing wheat, because there is no place to go with them. If they're taken to the sale barn, we're going to sell cheap and lose money."

ETHANOL AND COTTON ANGST

A handful of farmers reported they are trimming corn acres in response to the expected rise in corn acreage and the struggling ethanol market.

"Cropping plans have been changing a little bit," said Jay Magnussen, who farms in northwest Iowa and works at a local co-op. "There are a few guys who have called and switched fields of corn-on-corn to soybeans."

Other farmers are locked into their usual rotational acres and are staying the course, albeit anxiously. "The future looks pretty bleak for ethanol, and I am worried about planting a record number of corn acres that no one wants," said Tyler Young, who farms in east-central Illinois.

Nowak worries that without interventions to increase the mandatory ethanol blending levels, crashing corn prices could end many farming careers this year. "If the country allows the ethanol industry to wither, the ag economy is doomed," he predicted. "Sub $3 corn will bring most farming operations to their knees."

Farmers who plant cotton as well as corn are now facing two row crops with ugly predicted margins. Arkansas's Williams will plant enough corn to fill contracts he already sold, and enough cotton to maximize use of his cotton pickers, but beyond that, he will have to be nimble. "Our intentions were for a slight decrease in cotton and a slight increase in corn, rice and soybeans," he noted. "But we're going to have to maintain some flexibility and see how this thing shapes up."

Sorghum may be poised to pick up some lost cotton and corn acres, Kansas and Texas farmers noted. "We will still put out grain sorghum as we feel it has its unique position in the market place," said central Kansas farmer Kyle Krier.

PANDEMIC PRECAUTIONS

With the average age of the American farmer pushing 60, many Agronomy Advisers fall into the at-risk category for COVID-19. And, like many Americans, other factors, such as cancer, diabetes and pregnancy have left some Advisers and their families more vulnerable to the disease's worst symptoms.

Some farmers have had personal brushes with the rising panic among rural communities as local cases crop up with increasing frequency.

In Iowa, Magnussen was already on high alert as his wife navigates a pregnancy this spring. Then he started to show symptoms of COVID-19 in late March. "It was funny and saddening to see peoples' reactions when you told them that they should be watchful of their symptoms as you were going to be tested," he recalled. "I now know how the lepers must have felt during biblical times!"

Thankfully, Magnussen's test came back negative, but his quarantine experience has opened his eyes to the enormous upheaval the virus could cause in agricultural communities this spring.

"We have the elevator closed to foot traffic and are really limiting outside people on the facility grounds," he said of his co-op. "It will be devastating if someone at the co-op comes down with the virus in the next 60 days. All the work that needs to get done in the next 60 days is unbelievable."

Most Agronomy Advisers reported taking new precautions to keep workers safe.

Many were limiting trips into town, restricting the movement of the oldest employees and managers, and calling ahead to make sure supplies were available before they venture out to farm stores and retailers. Some businesses are setting purchases and parts outside the store, reported Jarett Andersen, from east-central Nebraska.

Sanitation efforts are a priority for many, as well. "Within our operation, we are diligently sanitizing surfaces where our employees interact, namely tractor cabs, truck cabs, keyboards -- and the coffee pot," Arnusch said.

In Maryland, where the governor issued a strict stay-at-home order last week, Eastern Shore farmer Jennie Schmidt rushed to write and print letters for her employees, certifying that they are exempt from the order, as agricultural workers.

"The police are not pulling you over to check documentation, but if you get pulled over for a speeding ticket, accident or traffic violation, they can ask you to provide proof of why you are out on the roads," she noted.

The already fraught state of rural internet access is not improving with the added home workload, added northeastern Nebraska farmer Kenny Reinke. "Our poor internet is even worse trying to do some school work with the kids," he noted. "Our school district has been mindful by not forcing a lot of high-data-demand work on the kids."

Farming during a pandemic requires stubborn optimism, and a number of Advisers closed their reports with a note of hope, including Oklahoma's Rendel.

"I told my wife last night that I'm glad we had a year like 2019 before this one to get us ready for this," he said. "We made it through '19; I know we'll make it through '20."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(ES/AG)

Emily Unglesbee