Iowa's harvest will likely be marked by extremes — some will have record yields, while others will be dinged by drought
Getting scant rain from recent storms, Sara Shepherd hauls water in central Iowa to where her purebred Charolais cows and calves are grazing on conservation land the federal government opened after this summer's persistent drought burned up pastures across the state and nation.
To help farmers struggling with the dry conditions, the federal government is allowing emergency grazing and haying on the usually off-limits land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in 70 Iowa counties — and nearly 1,300 counties nationwide.
For Shepherd, access to the pasture lets her avoid buying hay to feed her herd. She's already hauling hay to one of the six pastures where she grazes cattle, and anticipates she'll have to set out more. She's also hauling water where ponds are drying up.
"It gets expensive," said the Stuart farmer, adding that hay prices have climbed about 30% this year, with the drought in Iowa and nationally driving demand higher and cutting supplies.
Despite the below-average rainfall, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimates that Iowa farmers will harvest a record 570 million bushels of soybeans and a healthy 2.4 billion bushels of corn.
Iowa's harvest this year could be one of extremes, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said this week.
"Generally, things look better than you might expect, given some of the weather conditions," he said.
But he added that farmers could see some significant yield losses in northwest and north-central Iowa because of too little rain; and in southeast Iowa, because of too much rain.
Overall, nearly 60% of Iowa is experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. That's even with showers providing what Naig said is "some much, much needed and very welcome" moisture.
Thunderstorms hit much of Iowa this week, and the northern half of Iowa received showers overnight Thursday. Rain also fell last week across parts of Iowa.
The recent showers are helping to replenish Iowa soils, rivers, lakes and streams, said Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Midwest Climate Hub in Ames. But the moisture deficits are large in some parts of the state, he said. Northern Iowa, for example, is 8-12 inches below average.
Naig said there's still time to benefit yields.
"You know, there's a lot that can happen in the next few weeks," he said. "If we get some good moisture, there's still some upside for this crop."
The rains help fill out soybean pods — and potentially corn kernels — adding weight, which factors into yields, he said.
But going into September, most farmers are shifting their focus toward preparing to harvest nearly 22.5 million acres of corn and soybeans.
High temperatures this week and moisture-deprived soils have pushed Iowa’s crops toward maturity about a week ahead of the five-year average, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's most recent crop report for Iowa.
Overall, Naig said, "we're expecting a slightly earlier harvest." Combines can start rolling in mid-September, depending on field conditions.
"You're going to see some record yields across parts of the state, because they've just gotten just the exact amount of rain that they've needed. And the crops are really looking good," Naig said.
"But you never really know until you get out there" with a combine "and put a yield monitor on it," he said.
Derecho's effects still felt
While Iowa's soybean crop could be large, Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist, said the boost is mostly due to farmers planting an additional 500,000 acres.
The increase is likely due to a couple of factors, Hart said: strong soybean prices last fall, thanks to strong exports to China and other countries, and strategic planting made necessary by last year's derecho.
By planting herbicide-tolerant soybeans, farmers can keep the land in production while spraying to control so-called "volunteer corn" that grew from the millions of seeds left on the ground when the storm's hurricane-force winds swept across the middle third of the state on Aug. 10, 2020, flattening cornstalks. Just like weeds, the unwanted corn competes with other crops for nutrients and sunshine.
Iowa farmers struggled with drought last year as well. "This is the harvest that farmers would have seen last year, without the derecho," Hart said.
One consolation from the down year: Hart said farmers will likely hit the fields this year with "new iron." Record government payments last year, helping farmers overcome market disruptions due to the coronavirus, along with improved prices, have helped to boost farm income, Hart said, making it possible for farmers to replace aging equipment.
For a half-dozen years, as farmers weathered low prices, they put off new farm equipment purchases. But now, Deere & Co. and other farm equipment manufacturers are seeing booming demand. Deere said last week that it had exceeded its highest year of profits just nine months into its fiscal year.
"They have some cash on hand, and (they're) making some investments this year because of that," Hart said.
Drought not as bad as 2012's
Robb Ewoldt, who farms near Davenport in eastern Iowa, said his family was lucky to receive some timely rains through July. Then the spigot dried up the last week of July.
"With no rain, we're seeing the crops progress a lot faster than we would see normally," said Ewoldt, president-elect of the Iowa Soybean Association board of directors.
In the past week, his farm has received about an inch of rain. Even though it was less than what was forecast, Ewoldt calls it a blessing, improving his crops. "It really turned things around," he said, adding weight to soybeans and corn.
While the drought could push harvest a little, Ewoldt, who raises hogs and runs a cow-calf operation, said he doesn't expect it to be like the one during the disastrous 2012 drought. He started chopping corn, which he feeds to his livestock, a month early that year. This year, he said he expects to begin chopping corn next week.
In 2012, "we had a lot of corn with no ears," he said. "We don't have that this year. The ears are there. The kernels are there. But the size of the kernels will be the issue."
Shepherd thinks she will see below-average yields from her corn and soybeans.
"The times I thought we were going to get rain, we just got a handful of sprinkles," she said. "It's not going to be a bumper year by any means."
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8457.