By DTN Staff
OMAHA (DTN) -- Each year, DTN publishes our choices for the top 10 ag news stories of the year, as selected by DTN analysts, editors and reporters. We complete our countdown today with the No. 1 story of 2019: wet weather and its multi-billion-dollar impact on agriculture, rural areas and the lives of farmers and ranchers.
This year's severe wet weather challenges seemed relentless for some areas of the country, and left a staggering, frustrating impact on the agriculture sector stretching from the Northern Plains to the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive flooding, beginning in March, was especially a factor in causing billions of dollars of economic and infrastructure damage, left almost 20 million acres of land unplanted, killed thousands of livestock and created an agronomic headache for farmers attempting to get their late crops in and harvested before winter. Even transporting their produce to market was a challenge, as barge traffic was shut down for months on important river systems.
Because it wasn't just one storm, one area of the country affected, one commodity, or even one season affected, the significant wet weather and its year-long impact stormed in as the No. 1 story of the year.
RECORD WET YEAR
Even before a recent Dec. 27-29 storm roared through and brought in almost outrageous amounts of precipitation to the central U.S. -- leading to some flooding and standing water in some places, and high snowdrifts in others -- 2019 was a record-wet year in many primary U.S. crop areas.
The record precipitation followed a very wet fall season in 2018 and produced extensive planting delays, flooding and lost acreage.
Dynamics for the wet year began in February, when a strong Arctic cold wave moved into the central and eastern U.S. along with widespread snow cover. Mid-March saw a powerful central U.S. storm system that reached bomb cyclone status bring rapid melting of snow and ice in the river basins of the Plains and Midwest. Flooding and ice jam-related destruction was catastrophic.
The cold and stormy pattern remained in place throughout the entire spring, focusing first on the Plains, and then expanding the heavy rain coverage to include the Midwest.
CAUSES AND CONTINUATION OF THE WET TREND
The record-wet trend can be attributed to the impact of a persistent slowing down of weather systems, which has been identified in recent years, combined with the influence of a Pacific Ocean El Nino. In 2019, a large-scale atmospheric pattern featuring high pressure over the western U.S. (ridge) and low pressure east of the Rockies (trough) brought a consistent inflow of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico into the interior U.S. The large-scale stagnant upper-air pattern was enhanced by an energetic subtropical jet stream flow due to a weak El Nino in the Pacific Ocean.
This set the stage for additional and frequent episodes of heavy rain and snow. Precipitation records for the March-through-May time period were set in many areas.
Spring planting turned into summer planting. U.S. corn planting did not reach 90% finished until mid-June -- from two to three weeks later than average.
Crop development remained two to three weeks behind average throughout the season. U.S. corn silking took until the week ending Aug. 11 to reach the 90% mark, compared with the average time of July 30. In addition, periodic bouts of heavy rain and flooding continued to disrupt in-season fieldwork and hinder recovery efforts from spring flooding.
The late-progress framework assured that harvest would start late, with crops being vulnerable to storms during fall. That scenario played out in mid-October and in late November, when two large central U.S. storm systems brought heavy rain to the Midwest and heavy snow and blizzard conditions to the Northern Plains. These storms helped assure that corn and soybean harvest would be the latest in 10 years, dating back to 2009.
The first 11 months of the calendar year 2019 were the wettest in recorded history. Official NOAA statistics show that the year-to-date precipitation total across the contiguous U.S. was 32.14 inches, 4.55 inches or almost 28%, above the long-term average.
The 12-month period from December 2018 through November 2019 was also a record-wet period for the contiguous U.S., with an average of 35.39 inches, 5.45 inches or 18%, above the long-term average. North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan all posted record-wettest January-through-November periods. The large majority of the remaining states between the Rockies and the Appalachians had January-to-November precipitation in the top 5% to 10% on record.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already warning residents throughout the Missouri River watershed that the risks for spring flooding in 2020 remain high.
HEAVY FINANCIAL BLOW
As water levels rapidly rose with spring floods, so did the damage costs.
Spring flooding led to more than $1 billion in damages in states such as Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Farmers lost the opportunity to plant in the spring, but many who had grain stored in lowland bins or grain elevators also lost their 2018 crops.
Throughout the spring and summer, high rises on the Missouri River and its tributaries effectively shut off towns from each other. Missouri alone had more than 400 roads shut down because of flooding across the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The Arkansas River inundated farm ground in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and locks and dams on the Mississippi River shut down as the Corps of Engineers looked for ways to relieve pressure on the system.
The spring disaster prompted Congress to pass a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill in June that addressed Midwest flooding, but also hurricane and wildfire damage from 2018. The bill specifically set aside just over $3 billion to pay off farmer losses, including to help offset farmers who lost stored grain during the flooding.
The damage from the floods had been so swift and extensive that the governors of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri began meeting with the leaders from the Army Corps of Engineers to look for different management strategies for the Missouri River. The governors maintain they need more say in how the river is managed after repeated flooding challenges over the past decade.
PREVENTED PLANTING CLAIMS MILLIONS OF ACRES
While politicians dealt with disaster aid bills, farmers continued to struggle with the water and mud.
This sopping spring made for difficult decision-making across the Corn Belt, as farmers tried to figure out if they'd be better off financially to continue planting corn with reduced insurance, take a prevented planting payout or switch to planting soybeans. Many continued to plant as long as it made financial sense, but at the time, taking prevented planting on corn acres provided more revenue than planting soybeans.
As a result, 11.4 million corn acres went unplanted, along with 4.5 million acres of soybeans.
Nationally, prevented planting claims topped 19.6 million acres. South Dakota, which recorded its highest rainfall totals in history, had more than 3.9 million acres of farmland that went unplanted. Reflecting the widespread nature of the wet spring, prevented planting claims also topped 1 million acres in Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio.
USDA's Risk Management Agency paid out $4.26 billion in claims related to flooding and excess moisture in 2019, throwing a critical financial lifeline to the nation's farmers.
The challenges of prevented planting acreage prompted Congress to include language in the disaster relief bill that would raise the indemnity of prevented planting claims. USDA later announced more than $580 million of "top-up" payments for prevented planting acres in the disaster relief bill.
For many farmers, the payments were proof positive of why crop insurance is the basis of the farm safety net. At the same time, government assistance -- whether from insurance, the Market Facilitation Program payments, ARC/PLC or a variety of other programs -- grew to more than 20% of net farm income, the highest level since 2005.
EFFECT ON LIVESTOCK, AG BUSINESSES
Before the financial help came, however, ranchers, farmers and ag businesses were still struggling to deal with blizzards, floods and their aftermath.
Cattle losses were high from the beginning of the year because of extremely cold and wet conditions during the winter calving season, including deep blizzard snowdrifts in parts of the Plains. The mid-March bomb cyclone event only added to these issues: Nebraska farmers and ranchers were hit particularly hard by a blizzard in the western part of the state and flooding in the northeastern part of the state that destroyed farms, washed away cattle, highways, rural roads, bridges, dams, levees and rail lines. Thousands of head of livestock were estimated to be lost. Cow-calf operations in Nebraska reported livestock losses of at least $400 million.
The livestock that survived the widespread floods were now without feed and, in some cases, far from home. Convoys of hay donations poured into affected areas, and the Nebraska National Guard even had to drop bales of hay from helicopters to help feed stranded cattle.
Even as the historic floodwaters started to recede in parts of Nebraska and Iowa near the end of March, ethanol plants and feedlots continued to have trouble shipping ethanol and sourcing feedstocks, as many rail lines across the region continued to be down and highways in shambles.
The governors of both Nebraska and Iowa issued emergency and disaster declarations, as losses to agriculture and otherwise totaled in the billions of dollars.
Agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland reported the flood-related damage would cause losses of $50 million to $60 million in pre-tax operating profits.
Iowa's initial damage estimates were that 23,540 structures reported minor damage while major damage or destruction was inflicted to more than 1,200 structures.
Repairing infrastructure would not be easy. In Nebraska, the state reported at least 13 bridges were washed away and 16 were damaged.
At the peak of the flooding, the Nebraska Department of Transportation reported there were 79 highways closed, accounting for 1,568 miles.
EFFECT ON CROPS PLANTED
Farmers determined to get their crops planted had a lot of work ahead of them.
The wet spring, late planting and colder-than-normal fall weather meant a banner year for weeds, and difficulty getting herbicide applications in to attack the weeds.
Some farmers reported uneven maturity in fields due to emergence delays after planting into less-than-ideal conditions, which made drying more of a challenge.
Many farmers were forced to take off crops that needed to be dried -- and struggled to find propane to run the dryers.
Farmers who had never needed on-farm grain systems found themselves yearning for them. Those who have drying capacity pushed it to the limit as "running the fans" often wasn't good enough.
Northern regions were hit hardest as many cornfields didn't reach maturity before a killing frost hit. Wet and snowy weather added to the difficult harvest and very little field drying occurred during November and December. Letting corn stand in the winter greatly increases chances of field losses from lodging and stalk rot.
Some farmers in the central portions of the Corn Belt were able to use the slightly wetter conditions to their advantage by avoiding shrink and taking advantage of facilities that temporarily waived drying charges to attract grain.
EFFECT ON RIVER TRANSPORTATION
For the farmers who had ag commodities they wished to get to their markets, the challenge during the year was how to get barges downriver.
The year started out with flooding on much of the Lower Mississippi River and its tributaries, with conditions only getting worse as the snow up north melted, along with spring rains, sending the swollen river south from St. Paul, Minnesota, as it made its way to the Gulf.
As the flooding worsened on the Upper Mississippi River down in to the Lower Mississippi River, barges were stalled due to dangerously high currents, low bridge clearances, and closed locks above St. Louis. Shipments of agricultural commodities, including spring fertilizer, were pretty much shut off well in to the summer.
Severe flooding on the Missouri River also affected transportation, as well as flooding farmland.
On Dec. 18, the Kansas City District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that the Missouri River has fallen below flood stage for the first time in 279 days, marking an end to the longest declared flooding event in district history. The USACE is currently repairing levees, noting that there are 54 damaged levee systems in the Omaha District and 94 levees in the Kansas City District, where officials have stated that not all 94 levees will be completed in 2020.
Records were broken along the entire Mississippi River system as many areas remained in flood stage past levels seen in the 1993 flood and the Great Mississippi River flood of 1927. The Lower Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi, was above flood stage for the longest period since 1927. The LMR at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was above flood stage for 211 days from Jan. 6, 2019, until Aug. 4, 2019, breaking the record set in 1927. Because of the flooding there, the USACE opened the Bonnet Carre' Spillway, which diverts part of the flow of the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain, for the first time in two consecutive years on Feb. 27, 2019. The spillway closed on April 10, 2019, but in another historical event, the USACE reopened the spillway on May 10, 2019, the first time ever it had been opened twice in the same year.
As 2019 came to a close, many areas along the Mississippi River are experiencing high water and there are already expectations that we could see another flooding event in 2020.
EFFECT ON MARKET PRICES
So, with all the impact of the wet weather this year, how did the markets react?
The year 2019 stands alone in terms of unique weather challenges and has been especially difficult for traders and USDA officials to properly assess. Farmers doubted that USDA's 13.66 billion bushel corn crop estimate and 1.91 bb of ending stocks is close to the truth.
DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman said the question he heard from farmers, and had the same question himself, was: "If there's so much corn around, how come basis is so strong and commercials are having a hard time getting supplies?"
He said the mystery of corn supplies is currently unsolved and will continue in 2020.
"With or without USDA's cooperation, we can't forget that December corn reached a high of $4.73 in mid-June, the best selling opportunity December corn has seen in five years," he said.
"For U.S. soybean prices, the adverse weather of 2019 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead of watching ending soybean stocks bloat above 1 bb, while China avoided U.S. markets, the expected surplus for 2019-20 has dropped to a more reasonable 475 million bushels and eased much of the bearish pressure on prices.
"In addition, 2019 is ending with hope for a limited trade agreement with China that should bring more business to the U.S. in 2020," Hultman said. "As frustrating as farming conditions were in 2019, DTN's national indices show both cash corn and soybean prices up 7% from a year ago."
Bryce Anderson, Chris Clayton, Katie Dehlinger, Todd Hultman, Mary Kennedy, Todd Neeley, Russ Quinn, Elaine Shein, and Pamela Smith contributed to this story.
Editor's Note: This completes our DTN top 10 list of the top ag news stories of 2019. Check out the blog by DTN Editor-in-Chief Greg Horstmeier about this year's selections at https://www.dtnpf.com/….
Share what you think was the top ag news story of the year by writing DTN editors at email@example.com. We welcome your feedback, and wish you a Happy New Year.
If you missed the others:
Top 10 Ag Stories of 2019
Best of the Rest
Top 10 Ag Stories of 2019: 10, 9, 8
Top 10 Ag Stories of 2019: 7, 6, 5
Top 10 Ag Stories of 2019: 4, 3, 2
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