Most Illinois farmers thought it couldn’t get any worse than 2019 for planting delays, replanting and prevented planting insurance claims.
Then 2020 came along.
“We survived, but it was one of the toughest years we’ve been through,” says Steve Hettinger, who says rains forced him to replant almost 20% of his corn on his operation near Philo, Ill. “Last year was good training ground for this year. Take last year times 1.5; that’s how bad it felt. We started April 6 and got done replanting June 15.”
In fact, replant insurance claims and seed requests across Illinois outpaced the historically wet 2019 season, according to crop insurer Country Financial and regional seed companies Wyffels Hybrids, Beck’s and Burrus Seed.
The state is faring better than in 2019 when it comes to prevented planting acreage, with 2,360 fewer claims than the record-setting year. About 28% more replant insurance claims hit Country Financial in 2020 than 2019, in part because fewer acres were taken out of production in prevented planting insurance claims.
A trend for wet winters and even wetter springs has resulted in a new normal for Illinois growers, who are increasingly relying on federally subsidized insurance and seed companies to deal with damage wrought by rain.
Sure, farmers could wait till June for clearer skies. But yield data shows early-planted crops yield better — even if portions of a field need to be replanted. That’s why seed companies offer free and reduced-cost replant policies, and why the government also backs replant through federal crop insurance.
As technology, insurance and seed companies help mitigate risk, they’re actually helping mitigate the enormous risk of planting on the wrong day.
Wyffels reports its Illinois customers replanted 7.4% of their corn in 2020. That’s twice the companywide average.
“It was an extremely wet year in 2020, but it was mostly wet on the Illinois side of the Mississippi,” explains Vince Davis, Wyffels agronomy manager. “In April and May, we got a whole lot more precipitation in Illinois than they got in Iowa and elsewhere. A couple of weather systems basically circled up through central Illinois, particularly up the eastern side of the state.”
Replanting spots, not fields
Requests for replanting had a common theme: spotting in.
Clint Prange, regional business manager at Beck’s, says farmers spotted in because by the time weather cleared, the rest of the field was too good to tear up. “It was so late, the yield advantage to replanting the entire field wasn’t there.”
The toughest planting conditions in the state fell in northeast Illinois, where Beck’s customers replanted an average of 18% of their acres.
Country Financial reports the acreage size for replanting claims in 2020 was smaller than in 2019, but still larger than average. Like in 2019, wet and cool conditions led to poor emergence in the portions of fields that were saturated for much of the spring.
“In 2019, we had so much moisture that farmers weren’t even able to get into the ground to plant an initial crop in places,” says Brad Clow, Country Financial crop operations manager. “This year, the majority of farmers were able to plant the initial crops, so prevent plant was not an issue. But then we still had a lot of moisture after the fact.”
He notes late-season rains are also picking up and causing damage, with 2020 having more insurance claims for damage than average.
“Hard rain events are happening more often — in the spring and the later season,” he says.
In east-central Illinois, Hettinger expects trend yield across his farm, but “the top end’s off, and as most farmers will tell you, the top is what goes in your pocket.”
Just like 2019, however, he anticipates yields will outshine low expectations. Part of that has to do with high-performing genetics. Widely used seed treatments that lower risk from early-April planting also helped establish good stands before wet conditions set in later in the growing season.
Better seed reduces risk
Burrus Seed owner Todd Burrus says while more farmers than usual used his company’s replant policy in 2020, farmers have required fewer replant seeds in recent years compared to a 40-year trend. He credits genetics and seed treatments. Better seed quality helps to boost emergence in cool soils.
“Going back 15, 20 years ago, we used to replant for insect damage and all sorts of reasons,” Burrus says. Resistant traits and seed treatments helped put a stop to that.
“With the improvements we’ve put into play, almost all the replant now is due to a weather event that happens after planting. It typically is in a small geographic area and involves normally one or two planting dates,” he says.
Nearly all the soybean varieties Burrus sells get a seed treatment to control fungus and insect pressure, with multiple modes of action. These seeds come with a free replant policy, but Burrus doesn’t offer the policy for untreated seed.
“We dedicate some of the margin from selling seed treatment to a 100% free replant policy because we know there’s less need to replant treated soybeans,” Burrus says.
Prange says heavy spring rains in the last couple of years have put a dent in the 40-year trend for less replant. Nonetheless, he doesn’t want farmers who buy Beck’s seed skipping planting on a clear-skied, low-soil-moisture day in April in fear of later rains.
“Planting early results in more yield. There’s risk; you can plant on the wrong day. That happened in 2020. But we’re selling a stand, not a bag of seed. We back our customers with free replant because we want them to chase a higher yield, and we feel our seed treatments cut down the risk,” Prange says.
Hettinger agrees. “If you have a high capacity to plant a lot of acres in one day and you pick the wrong day, there’s a lot that can go wrong.”