Spring, at last

Cold, damp has kept Iowa farmers out of their fields

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

A farmer plants in a field along 140th St. NW near the intersection with Chambers Avenue NW in rural Amana on Tuesday.
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette A farmer plants in a field along 140th St. NW near the intersection with Chambers Avenue NW in rural Amana on Tuesday.

This spring, which until recently bore a strong resemblance to the nightmarishly cold and wet season of a year ago, finally has started to cooperate with farmers eager to plant their crops.

“Until lately, I thought it was going to be another year without a spring,” said Columbus Junction farmer Wayne Humphreys, who at midweek had just 80 acres of corn left to plant.

“Every tractor and planter in Louisa County was running (Tuesday). The dust was flying and the corn was pouring into the ground,” Humphreys said.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who farms in northwest Iowa, said he noted similarities between this spring and last spring — but those similarities have faded.

Remembering last year, Iowa farmers this year have been poised and ready for planting opportunities, he said.

As of this past Monday, Northey said 23 percent of Iowa’s corn crop had been planted — nine days ahead of last year but 10 days behind normal.

The next planting progress report, due Monday, will show that “this was one of our biggest weeks of planting,” said Northey, who expected to finish planting corn this week.

With this week’s progress, “we are pretty much past the jitters,” said Mark Licht, an Iowa State University Extension field agronomist.

After this week, “I think a lot of farmers are comfortable with where they’re at,” he said.

April, the state’s seventh straight cooler than normal month, was also its 12th wettest in 142 years, according to State Climatologist Harry Hillaker.

That combination of cold and damp kept farmers out of their fields and revived painful memories of last spring when more than 600,000 Iowa acres went unplanted.

April yielded a statewide average of 4.83 inches of rain, well above the normal 3.51 inches. But it was much wetter in many locales, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, which recorded 6.86 and 5.82 inches, respectively, Hillaker said.

As cool and wet as this April was, “it was not nearly as cold and wet as last April,” he said.

Last April, Iowa recorded a statewide average precipitation of 6.57 inches (the most in 142 Aprils) and an average temperature of 43.4 degrees — 3.8 degrees cooler than this April and 5.5 degrees colder than normal, according to Hillaker.

“It kind of acted like it was going to be a repeat of last year, but (with warmer, dryer weather in May) we are one week ahead of where we were a year ago,” Tracy Franck, who farms with his dad and son in Buchanan County, said Wednesday.

Franck predicted they would be two-thirds done with corn planting at the end of the day Wednesday.

“The ground is working up really well now,” he said.

“Last year was really trying. It did not seem like we’d ever get done,” said DeWitt farmer Bob Bowman, president of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

Though Bowman had but 20 percent of his corn planted at midweek, he said he felt much better about his progress than he did a year earlier, when he finished planting corn in late May.

As a means to protect and improve his soil, Bowman practices no-till/strip till cultivation, which leaves considerable crop residue on his fields.

“The residue is a curse in a cold wet spring — it keeps the soil from warming up and drying out — but it’s a blessing in the summer when it conserves moisture and insulates the soil,” he said.

With his soil saving techniques, Bowman said, “I’ve missed some planting days, but I don’t think I’ve missed many growing days.”

Iowa farmers have upgraded the size of their planters, in part to compensate for the narrow planting windows that have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

“I would say we are creeping up toward a 24-row average,” Licht said.

With suitable conditions, he said, Iowa farmers can plant as much as 1.4 million acres of corn in a single day — about 10 percent of the state’s total corn acreage.

The Francks, who recently upgraded to a 24-row planter, can plant 230 acres of corn on an average day and as much as 300 acres under the best of conditions, Tracy Franck said.

“A good day to me is 250 acres,” said Bowman, whose 24-row planter is used in many small and odd-shaped fields.

Humphreys said he could plant between 120 and 150 acres of corn per day with his 12-row planter, “if it was all in one place.”

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