Drought-year harvest surprises some Iowa farmers

Yields 'better than expected' in many areas

Ken Cook harvests corn in his fields near Quasqueton on Oct. 10. Despite this summer's drought, Cook's yields have been high. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-)
Ken Cook harvests corn in his fields near Quasqueton on Oct. 10. Despite this summer's drought, Cook's yields have been high. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-)

QUASQUETON — The Cook family, experienced farmers of good ground four miles east of here, grew their best crops ever in this, the driest year since 1988, in a county that for most of the growing season was classified as in extreme drought.

To say the least, they were, like many other Iowa farmers this year, pleasantly surprised with their yields, which for corn averaged around 210 bushels per acre, with their best field topping 230, and for soybeans, about 65 bushels per acre.

“We were just lucky. We had a lot more rain than almost anyone else around here. We were in a pocket,” said Ken Cook, 65, who raises corn, soybeans and hogs with his brother Alan and their almost retired dad, Ray.

Even so, their farm was far from an oasis. They got just enough rain at exactly the right time, they said.

Twice, at critical times in the growing season, they got over an inch of rain when much less fell on neighbors’ fields.

“An inch of rain is not worth much if you don’t need it, but you can’t put a price on it when you do,” Ray Cook, 89, said.

“Ray’s right. How much rain is enough? I don’t know. But the timing of the rain is important too,” said Iowa State University corn specialist Roger Elmore.

At pollination, corn can put to good use one-third inch of rain per day, he said.

Two farmers with the same amount of rain for the season could have widely varying yields, especially if one farmer got a good soaking at pollination and the other did not, he said.

In a year with extremely variable rainfall, Elmore said he has heard “lots of stories like the Cooks’,” in which farmers were fortunate to be in the right spot at the right time.

“I learned a new set of words this year — ‘living in the garden spot,’?” he said.

Another commonly heard phrase this year, Elmore said, was “better than expected.”

While that aptly describes the Cooks’ experience and that of many other Iowa farmers, the rapidly concluding corn harvest has not changed the expectation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which in its October estimate, released Thursday, pegged Iowa’s average corn yield at 140 bushels per acre, unchanged from the September estimate.

“Better than expected,” however, certainly applies to the state’s average soybean yield, which the USDA bumped to 43 bushels per acre, up more than 10 percent from the September estimate of 39 bushels per acre.

“I have heard that phrase a lot and said it myself,” said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Bill Northey, who raises corn and soybeans near Spirit Lake.

With his corn harvest nearly complete, Northey said Thursday that his corn, yielding about 160 bushels per acre, “is much better than I thought a month ago.”

So was his soybean crop, which Northey described as “normal, in the low 50s, which is all I ever get.”

Even though the Cooks’ late-summer eyeball assessment inspired high expectations, they were still pleasantly surprised by the readings on their combine yield monitor.

Virgil Schmitt, an ISU Extension crop specialist at Muscatine, said his 11-county district had “an oasis or two” this year.

Three weeks ago, Schmitt said he stood in a field near Wapello in Louisa County that yielded “242 bushels (per acre) of dry corn across the scale.”

That field, the best he’s seen, was part of a fairly large tract, which included parts of Louisa, Muscatine and Cedar counties, that benefitted from more rain than most parts of the state, Schmitt said.

On his own farm north of Muscatine, Schmitt said he is “looking at the best soybean crop” he has ever raised.

“You don’t want to say that too loud. It’s only going to make less fortunate farmers feel bad,” he said.

“You go back to the drought of ’88, the floods of ’93, everyone was in it together. This year, with the widely variable rainfall, you have some real haves and have nots,” he said.

Ken Cook said his family, having also suffered their share of ill weather, including a corn-flattening wind storm last year, appreciates Schmitt’s sentiment. “I’m not going around talking about it, but I will tell the truth when asked,” he said.

Tracy Franck, 51, who farms in southern Buchanan County with his dad, Jack, and his son, Austen, said their crops, while not the best they’ve ever raised, were normal for them and much better than they had expected.

Field checks in August suggested corn in the 150 to 175 bushel-per-acre range, and “we would have been very happy with that,” he said.

Once harvest got under way, however, Franck said they found yields “about 25 bushels better than we thought.”

A 2-inch rain that immediately followed the summer’s three hottest days probably saved their crop. “The corn couldn’t have stood much more of that heat without some relief. It was just about done for,” he said.

Franck said their fairly widespread fields received, on average. about 10 inches of rain during the growing season — about 6 inches less than they would get in a normal year.

Brian Lang, the ISU Extension field agronomist for northeast Iowa, said storm fronts dipping into Iowa from Minnesota on several occasions provided isolated rain benefiting farmers in northern Winneshiek and Allamakee counties and northeastern Clayton County.

Lang said he’s heard at least a couple of reliable reports of corn yields around 270 bushels per acre in those areas.

Extension field agronomist Jim Fawcett, whose district includes Linn, Johnson and nine other counties, said he’s seen some 200 bushel per acre corn yields in parts of Cedar and Washington counties.

Fawcett said he has also seen many fields that yielded less than 50 bushels per acre.“Northeast Jones County into Delaware is probably the driest part of my district,” Fawcett said.

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