Washington County farmers are still managing the aftermath of March rain and snowmelt that contributed to devastating flooding.
Many of their fields were left water-logged after the early spring natural disaster — fields that still get submerged due to consistently high water levels on the Missouri River or are left saturated because of above-average rainfall.
The burdensome planting season comes after a difficult harvest last fall when above-average rain also left soils saturated, preventing some farmers, including Scott McNew, from harvesting acres of their crops. The long-term impacts come with significant financial impacts, said McNew, who owns land near the Missouri River southeast of Fort Calhoun.
"It could be a bad deal, and we've already come through three years of pretty tough times," he said.
Twenty acres of one of McNew's fields near County Road P49 were underwater Thursday when the Missouri River near Blair was at nearly 28 feet. Even with the flooded field, McNew said he's been fortunate with planting compared to other farmers.
Fields owned by Richard and Larry Tietz and Jeff Shaner were seen flooded Thursday near McNew's field. Shaner's farm was nearly surrounded after first being engulfed in March.
"I'm fortunate because I got 10 percent of my corn I can't plant, and 20 or 30 percent of my beans that can't get planted because the way my land lays," he said. "The guys up and down the Blair bottom that are 50 to 80 percent unplanted ..."
McNew said he has about 75 acres of corn and about 150 acres of soybeans unplanted. A Nebraska crop progress report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) for the week ending May 26 said the five-year average of corn planted is 94 percent and soybeans is 74 percent. Nebraska averages were at 81 percent for corn and 56 percent for soybeans.
Though rainfall in the Omaha area for the month of May is three inches above average, according to the National Weather Service, McNew said the rain is only exacerbating the problems due to the March flood and the high water since. He said he's seen similar amounts of rain on his fields in the past, but, because of flooding, the water table in the fields is too high to dry before additional moisture arrives.
"It can't drain," McNew said. "I can't really say the problem's been the rainfall. There's been years we got four inches of rains, three or four days later, we're back working again. This year, you get that half-inch of rain, it's like you got that four inches of rain because it's so saturated."
The NASS report said 40 percent of soils in Nebraska were at a surplus and 28 percent of subsoils were the same. That includes fields that haven't been flooded by rivers. Another of McNew's fields near CR P49 is protected by a dike, so it can't flood. Still, it's also been too wet to plant.
"If you get your water table four feet below the surface, things will dry out, but it's probably a foot deep," McNew said. "I bet if we took a spade out there right now and dug a foot, stood and drank a beer, it'd be full of water."
He said some of the fields he has planted, he had to plant quickly. Other fields haven't been touched since the fall. He said he didn't want to go out into some fields for the worry of leaving large ruts in the fields. He did the same during harvest when he left many acres of soybeans untouched.
"You go out there, and you got ruts a foot deep," McNew said. "You got your (crops) harvested and went out there with a grain car and tore it all up. Now, in the spring, when that all melts you got a foot of water standing in it. That just puts you three weeks off. Everybody has had a battle since last fall. It was a battle getting the low land out, combines were getting stuck. It was just a mess."
Financial impacts, assistance
Washington County farmers who haven't been able to plant do have some options to recoup some financial losses due to unfilled grain bins, or to plant different crops.
A May 29 news release from the National Sorghum Producers said farmers could consider planting sorghum since it costs significantly less for seed per acre than corn at $9 to $18 and $55 to $100, respectively. It can also be planted later in the season and provide higher yields for soybeans and corn when planted after sorghum.
On Monday, a press release from the Nebraska Farm Bureau (NFB) said the organization opened a second round of disaster relief funds for new and repeat applicants. The Disaster Relief Fund has raised more than $2.5 million dollars with 100 percent going to farmers, ranchers and rural communities, an NFB press release said. The application can be found online at nefb.org/disaster.
Farmers can also contact the Washington County Farm Service Agency (FSA) to file a notice for loss of failed acres and prevented planting.
Prevented planting acreage must be reported no later than 15 calendar days after the final planting date established by the FSA, a Friday news release said. The final date to plant corn was May 25. The final date to plant soybeans is June 10.
McNew said he filed for prevented planting at least for the 75 acres of corn unplanted. He may yet file for soybeans unplanted, though he said he could plant them as late as July 1.
"You get much later than that, you got to take your insured levels and the price of the yields," he said. "You got to weigh it all out to see if it's worth doing," adding he has no money invested in the unplanted fields yet.
"If you can plant it and raise 40 bushel beans and sell them $10, that's $400 an acre," he said. "If you don't got no expenses and the insurance company pays you $250, why would you plant it?"
Though planting could result in more money, if the fields stay too wet, the crop yield could be poor. The crops wouldn't get the nutrients they need, McNew said, if the fields stay too wet.
Insurance money is likely not enough to avoid having to take a bank loan, though, McNew said. On top of $100 an acre for property taxes, he said it costs him around $350 an acre for seed, equipment and labor.
"You take that in, if you do get $250 (insurance), then you take $100 off for taxes, there ain't much left," he said.
More assistance needed
Farmers need assistance, especially those along the Missouri River from South Dakota down to Missouri, McNew said. In addition to money from filing prevented planting with the FSA, McNew hopes more governmental aid will come later in the summer.
He also wants better flood management practices along the Missouri River to protect farmers like himself from devastating Missouri River flooding.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the Missouri River and six dams in the upper river from Montana to South Dakota where releases at Gavins Point reached 75,000 cubic feet second Saturday. The Corps is congressionally authorized and required to attend to eight different areas of river management including flood control, navigation, hydropower, water supply, irrigation, water quality control, recreation and fish and wildlife. That's too many areas for McNew, he said, even if the the weather in March was an act of mother nature more than anything else.
"I'm all about wildlife, save the fish, but what's more important? Me and you eating or seeing a sturgeon fish," he said. "I don't know the answers, but I just know somebody with power needs to do something."