For the first time ever, the Ed and Andrew Askegaard families are using their prevented-planting insurance. “Here we are,” Ed said, “after Memorial Day, harvesting our COVID-19 corn.’” Ed was piloting a tracked Case 8120 combine on a field of heavy Northcote clay a mile north of Wolverton, Minn.

Prevented planting acres are up in the northwest Corn Belt.

Askegaard Farms is one of dozens of farmers fighting the effects of unharvested corn and other crops from the 2019 crop in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Crop watchers say the resulting spring harvest and late planting of 2020 crops will lead to more prevented-planting insurance acres than in a typical year.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, agricultural producers were unable to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres in 2019 — a record for the prevented planting program. More than 73% of the acres were in 12 Midwestern states. South Dakota alone accounted for nearly four million. While 2020 prevented planting isn't expected to approach the record, a pocket of the Upper Midwest could see significant acres in the program.

Brad Thykeson, North Dakota state Farm Service Agency executive director, said he expects eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota to see a significant number of acres go unplanted. Farmers in parts of northern South Dakota, too, are struggling to complete planting.

"I know right now it’s going to be our little pocket," he said. "In fact, you get west river (west of the Missouri) in North Dakota and we’re actually in a drought indicator index. So it’s not a big area and that’s probably going to be a little bit of a detriment working through this prevented plant season."

Many producers in the region are dealing with wet conditions and high water tables. "We have fields that normally are dry that are wet, and then we have fields that have been wet that are normally dry," Thykeson said. "So I don't know what's really going on with Mother Nature, but the late April snowstorm, I think, really set us back, and that's not advantageous to our producers."

But for the others — like the Askegaards — it's been impossible to plant in 2020 because of the 2019 crops still in the field. The Askegaards typically “push until we get it done.” But last fall, however, they were stopped by snow and wet conditions after harvesting only 200 acres of corn. That left 1,200 acres of corn in the field.

In March, they got about 200 acres harvested, but had to stop. “You couldn’t get the corn head down low enough to get the ears, so we had to wait until the snow settled down,” Ed said. “The snow was so deep that there wasn’t any frost in the ground. I could go with the combine with the tracks on, but the grain cart wouldn’t stand up.”

While still struggling to harvest the last of the corn on May 28, they’d already gotten wheat, corn and sugar beets planted.

Ed figured Askegaard Farms had about 600 acres of beans left to plant as of June 3, and rain after that was expected to delay field work. The Askegaards expected to do whatever was possible before the crop insurance final planting date of June 10.

The biggest challenge is getting corn picked out. The worst spots were the edges of fields that had been filled with “eight-foot snow drifts,” he said. As he made the rounds, his nephew, Isaac Askegaard, had to keep the corn head clear of stalks and roots that would pull out of the mud.

On the plus side, the corn coming out of the field in the spring was generally good. They harvested some 200-bushel-per-acre corn this spring, but the later fields were down to 100- to 120-bushels per acre yield. “This field in particular was wet all summer last year,” Ed said.

The grain was coming out 12% moisture — 10 percentage points drier than last fall. Test weight was 53 pounds per bushel — five pounds heavier and better than it was in November. “We saved a lot of propane by waiting. We just didn’t want to wait this long,” he said.

The Askegaards did “many different things” to get the ground ready for planting. They tried no-till, working the ground up with a vertical tillage tool, and even burning stalks off. “Some of it worked,” Ed said. “Some, we’ll find out.”

Thykeson said producers often are comfortable going beyond the June 10 planting date for soybeans, at which time they are eligible for progressively less insurance coverage. But facing low commodity prices and two prior years of poor harvest conditions, many are wary of planting too late in 2020.

“Producers are tired, and they want to get back in step, and I think they’re going to use that option of prevented plant this year," he said.

Covering the options

Thykeson said producers planning to take prevented planting need to work with their insurance agents and Farm Service Agency to report their unplanted acreage. With FSA offices operating under COVID-19 protocols that have limited the number of employees in the offices and kept customers out, he said the agency is seeking extensions for deadlines to allow producers to get paperwork done.

Producers also will have to make decisions about what to do with the ground they couldn't plant. Bare ground is more at risk of erosion and the emergence of weeds that could cause problems in future crop years. One option is to plant cover crops. Cover crops planted on ground in prevented planting cannot be terminated until Nov. 1. However, in 2019's record prevented planting year, the USDA allowed for haying and grazing of cover crops after Sept. 1.

That date change was particularly helpful for livestock producers, because, Thykeson pointed out, hay land and pastures in many places have been inundated with water as well. Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, in a May 28 online roundtable with Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., (on the Senate Committee of Agriculture), said extending that kind of flexibility again in 2020 "would go a long way for cattlemen."

Hoeven, in a statement, said his office will continue to speak with USDA's Risk Management Agency about the important role the utilization of cover crops on prevented planting acres can play.

"RMA is concerned about engaging on the issue before final planting dates as they want to avoid distorting planting decisions," Hoeven said. "We worked with RMA on this issue last year, and were able to get the termination date moved up, and we are hopeful that we will be able to get it done again this year."

Thykeson said the 2019 cover crop provision was a one-time waiver from RMA, and the small pocket of prevented planting acreage this year may not elicit that same response from the agency as last year's record prevented planting acreage. Another option for producers facing hay shortages is FSA's Emergency Livestock Assistance Program. But, he said, the cover crop termination change would be welcome to producers. "These producers need that relief," he said.