The outlook for 2020’s growing season was top of mind on Thursday for hundreds of farmers gathering in Mitchell.

Speaking to about 300 farmers and producers at the Mitchell Soil Health Conference, an expert meteorologist outlined the state’s weather review and outlook, while South Dakota no-till farmers spoke about lessons learned from the last year. The event was held at the Highland Conference Center and hosted by South Dakota State University Extension, the South Dakota No-Till Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The way 2019 unfolded was part of nearly every presentation, with Ethan farmer Matt Bainbridge joking that he didn’t need to see too many more photos of it.

“We all lived through it enough, so we don’t really need to see it again,” he said.

Eric Snodgrass, an Illinois-based meteorologist who works as the principal atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions, is developing predictive and analytical software to help farmers manage weather risk. He showed a timelapse of the United States’ growing season in 2019, where swaths of precipitation drenched the Midwestern states over and over.

“Watch that and try to find a planting season and a harvest season,” Snodgrass said. “It’s pretty easy to see why last year ended up being the way it was.”

Fields in the southern Miner County showed plenty of wet spots in August 2019. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Fields in the southern Miner County showed plenty of wet spots in August 2019. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The issues with 2019 and the outlook for 2020 stem from the polar vortex. Last year, it triggered a wet spring after bitterly cold weather last January and February. This year, the polar vortex — shaped like a donut — is tighter, and remains parked over the North Pole, as it commonly is. That could help February finish as warmer than normal, Snodgrass said, even with Thursday being a day where many South Dakota residents woke up to wind chills around minus-30. He also pointed out that most of South Dakota experienced as much as a 50-degree difference in temperature change over 24 hours from Wednesday morning to Thursday morning.

“There’s no place on Earth other than the Northern plains to experience that," he said. “Being a weather junkie, I love it.”

Snodgrass, who worked in the University of Illinois’ Department of Atmospheric Sciences until last year, talked about how forecasting has improved drastically in an era of technology and instant access for meteorologists to evaluate satellites and forecasting models means that weather “doesn’t surprise us anymore like it used to.” He pointed to Hurricane Katrina, where people living along the Gulf Coast had four days warning about the severity of the storm when it was over the Bahamas. That being said, small changes can change everything about weather.

He said he’s working on predictive algorithms similar to what Netflix and Amazon use to guide customers to the next show or product to try to better nail down the weather forecasts more than 10 days out. The challenge is to remove confirmation bias, or the desire to see better weather behavior, he said.

As for the outlook on the start of the growing season, Snodgrass directed the audience to keep an eye on Alaska, which he said tends to be a bellwether for the rest of the country. He noted that South Dakota will have some issues regardless of the spring forecast but if the state can somehow get dry conditions for on-time and rapid planting in 2020, using 2018 as a model, all of 2019’s problems will start to be forgotten.

He pointed out that since 1981, South Dakota has tripled the number of rainfall events of 2 inches or more per day in a given year. He said the state is receiving 4 more inches of precipitation during the mid-April to October growing season than it did 70 years ago.

“Everyone in this room has felt this and experienced this,” he said. “The data supports the anecdotes you’ve shared. … (Nationally), it gets much worse the further south and east we go. ... It is statistically significant.”

But Snodgrass was complimentary of South Dakota’s approach to soil health management. He said he was excited to speak in Mitchell for the chance to learn more about farming the land in the state.

“Conferences like this are critical to our future success,” he said. “I love my friends from the I states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa — but you have been forced by the ground you have to be so much more innovative. Where is the Corn Belt expanding? Here. … The game is changing. This part of the world is positioned to improve yields and productivity.”

From left, Dakota Lakes Research Farm Manager Dwayne Beck, Gettysburg farmer Dan Forgey and Ethan farmer Matt Bainbridge discuss their 2019 farming experiences at the Mitchell Soil Health Conference on Thursday at the Highland Conference Center. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)
From left, Dakota Lakes Research Farm Manager Dwayne Beck, Gettysburg farmer Dan Forgey and Ethan farmer Matt Bainbridge discuss their 2019 farming experiences at the Mitchell Soil Health Conference on Thursday at the Highland Conference Center. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)

Participants also heard about livestock integration at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, and NRCS South Dakota Resource Conservationist John Lentz spoke about the importance of manure in increasing soil organic matter. Lentz said reducing soil erosion is a top priority, especially off a year with a lot of moisture and runoff.

The farmers who participated in a panel discussion on 2019 each came away with different tips. Bainbridge outlined that he had just 15 percent of each of his corn and soybeans fields planted by June 10, but tried to grow whatever grazing and forage crops he could, before providing the audience with things he would do differently.

Dan Forgey, of Gettysburg, echoed some of those same elements, saying that he had a lot of preventative planting in 2019, but it at least assures him a better starting point in 2020.

“The last thing you want is to not have anything growing there,” Forgey said.

Dwayne Beck, who is among the state’s foremost experts on no-till farming and has managed the Dakota Lakes farm since 1990, delivered a number of tips to farmers in the crowd. Of note, he used a photo of Lake Mitchell’s algae problems to make his point that managing nutrients and keeping them out of aquatic ecosystems is a major challenge for farmers around the world, and they need to be used with better care.

“We have to do a better job,” he said. “Non-farming communities won’t let us continue doing that.”

But his No. 1 tip was a simple one regarding upcoming decisions for 2020.

“Don’t panic,” he said.