Sow and Grow: South Dakota’s farmers making progress on row crop planting

A farmer loads his planter with corn seed. South Dakota farmers are making significant row crop planting progress. (Associated Press file photo)

Despite what many would consider a slow-warming spring, USDA-NASS crop progress reports show that South Dakota is making significant row crop planting progress.

As of the May 15, report, corn was 49% planted, long ahead of last year’s 28% at this time, and even ahead of the five-year average of 41%. By the time you read this, we’ll likely be more around 75% planted and hopefully a good portion of corn will be emerged (8% was reported on 5/15).

Soybeans were reported as 29% planted (again likely low by this date), ahead of the 14% last year and 22% planted on average by this date.

Winter wheat condition has been a challenge in many parts of the state this year. As of the 5/15 report, 5% was rated very poor, 15% poor, 57% fair, 21% good, and 2% excellent. The dry fall and rough winter were hard on many winter annual crops and caused some producers to abandon stands due to poor spring emergence.

Spring wheat was 84% planted, ahead of 76% last year and the 78% average. Thirty-seven percent was reported emerged, behind the five-year average of 42%. Oats were 84% planted as of 5/15, ahead of 72% last year and a 77% average. Forty-one percent was reported as emerged, similar to 39% last year, but behind the five-year average of 45%.

In addition, pasture and range conditions were rated as 6% very poor, 18% poor, 56% fair, 18% good, and 2% excellent. With dry conditions in many areas these past several months, many pastures have suffered. This is going to be an important spring to be mindful of good pasture management- carefully manage grazing, control weeds early, and consider fertilizing (at least at minimum for crop removal).

When we’re talking about pastures, keep in mind that now (or last week) is an ideal time for pasture weed control. It’s difficult to keep up with everything this time of year when many are trying to put crops in the ground, but don’t forget about your pastures! For example, even if you sprayed last fall, this is the time of year to scout and control musk thistles. The spring rosette growth is an ideal stage to control musk thistle before it sends up a flowering stalk. Many range herbicides are available for control of spring broadleaves (ie: Tordon 22K, Milestone, Graslan L, Chaparral, Telar, Curtail, etc.). Regardless of what you choose, be sure to read and follow all label instructions. If your thistles have already bolted and are flowering, unfortunately, a shovel is about the best control method.

Another consideration to make this spring is alfalfa harvest timing. Although it has been a slow warm up, alfalfa is likely catching up as moisture allows. Before making your first cutting, keep your objectives in mind in regards to feed value, target harvest schedule, yield, and stand persistence. We can’t have our cake and eat it too, so you will need to pick some main objectives.

Frequent alfalfa harvests generally produce higher quality forage with reasonable yields but do sacrifice some stand persistence and plant vigor. Longer harvest intervals will typically produce higher yields and better stand longevity but lower quality feeds. The greatest opportunity to get the best of both worlds is at first cutting in an established stand — you get the highest concentration of digestible fiber and typically a respectable yield.

Determining when to make the first cutting can be difficult, as researchers have determined that using plant maturity or calendar dates alone can be quite risky.

At minimum, I’d suggest looking at the developmental stage of your alfalfa before making cutting determinations. In high quality cutting systems, it is ideal to make the first cutting at bud/late bud stage, and then use a 32-35 day harvest intervals until late August/early Sept.

In high tonnage cutting systems, the first cutting is suggested to happen at full bloom, followed by a 40-45 day harvest interval until last August/early Sept. If your [high tonnage] alfalfa appears well behind its typical growth stage for this time of year, you may want to consider harvesting your first cutting earlier (to get all of your cuttings in this year). If you really want to fine-tune your alfalfa harvest, the most reliable method to predict your alfalfa quality is by using a growing degree-day calculator (like the one at or by using a predictor method like PEAQ (search PEAQ alfalfa online).

Upcoming events

See for details and registration for all events:

• June 5 — High Tunnel Field Day at Webster: free tour from 4-7pm

• June 8 — Sustaining the Legacy at Lemmon: two-day estate planning workshop

• June 8 — Women on the Range: 2-day workshop at Belle Fourche

• June 14 — Rangeland and Soils Days at Watertown: two-day youth learning experience