116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — For the multitude of Iowa corn and soybean farmers teeming with harvest hopes and anticipation, it's go time.
From satellite-guided mega machines to old-school combines and corn pickers, farmers are greased and ready to roll or already well into beat-the-clock fall harvest intensity as dusty clouds arise from the Iowa landscape.
“I think this week the way the weather is cooperating and looking with some heat, folks are really going to get out and go hard and really get harvest underway,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, who took a break from combining soybeans at his family’s Palo Alto County farm operation last week to discuss 2021 harvest prospects. Given the dry growing conditions in parts of Iowa this year, Naig said the feeling he is getting in talking with farmers is that 2021 crop yields are turning out to be better than expected.
“We were terribly dry up here, but I have to say we’re pleasantly surprised with how yields are looking, even given how dry it was,” Naig said. “But across the state, it really is kind of a mixed bag. It’s all weather-dependent — there were parts of the state that were terribly dry, you actually had parts of southeast Iowa that were really too wet and then you had some that got timely rain and they got just enough. I think we’re going to see some record yields in parts of the state. So it’ll be another year where you’re going to have a lot of variability, but I think generally we can say things look better than we might have expected.”
With market prices for a bushel of corn topping $5 and soybeans approaching $13 per bushel, Iowa farmers who were whipsawed by global trade uncertainties, COVID-19 impacts and a swath of a rare crop-flattening derecho are looking favorably at a bounce-back year with expectations they’ll finish No. 1 nationally in corn production and second to Illinois in soybean production again when the dust settles on the 2021 harvest in October.
Mark Licht, an assistant professor and cropping systems specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said there is an early push to harvest soybeans due to an unusually dry growing season of warm temperatures and low humidity rates that created a rapid grain dry down. On the corn side, the moisture content issue may be a positive if farmers have to spend considerably less in drying costs as they allow plants to mature in the field.
“Field activity has ramped up incredibly fast this year. We went from basically not harvesting to everyone harvesting as fast as they possibly can, largely because grain moistures have dropped really quickly. Both corn and soybean dry downs have been really good,” Licht said.
“I would guess that by the end of this week we will have farmers telling us that they are done with soybeans and they’re moving on to corn,” he noted. “We might see that soybean harvest rate quite a bit higher than normal just because of how things are drying down.”
Overall, the ISU crop expert said he expected 2021 harvest would “finish up a little earlier” than usual due to that rapid dry down.
The latest crop projections from the U.S. Department of Agriculture peg Iowa’s soybean yield at 58 bushels per acre, up from three previous years but below the 60.5 bushels an acre state record for 2016. For corn, the August estimate expected yields to average 193 bushels per acre — below the 2018 record of 204. ISU extension agronomists report yield ranges from 145 to 225 bushels around Iowa, and concerns over the stalk quality in dried-out plants susceptible to wind damage that are pushing the harvest activities.
Yields will be variable and “all over the map” Naig said.
“It’s a great time of year because you’ve been looking at this crop all growing season, you’ve been taking care of it, you’ve been making decisions about it and now you finally get to go out and see, well, how did we do? It is exciting,” Iowa’s agriculture secretary added.
Harvest was underway this past week for most Eastern Iowa farmers.
Jeff Knupp, 59, who grows corn and soybeans near Garrison in Benton County, was pleased with how his beans were looking from the combine Sept. 24.
“Real good,” he said. “This field we’re in now appears to be yielding 80 bushels per acre.”
Knupp, who farms 650 acres, was in a pocket of the state that got timely rain this summer, providing moisture to his crops just at the right moments, he said. He was able to plant last spring earlier than usual, which means an earlier harvest this fall. Once the crops are harvested, he plans to do a fall application of nitrogen fertilizer once the ground is cold, but before it freezes. When harvest is late, there’s not always time for fertilizer before the snow falls.
“If the weather stays good, we’ll be done with beans in 10 to 12 days,” Knupp said. “Then corn will be another 20 days.”
Dan Delaney, 44, who farms about 600 acres in Jefferson County, hadn’t yet started harvesting Sept. 27. He wanted to give his crops just a few more days to mature in the field. But it made him a little anxious when he drove over to southern Illinois recently and saw some farmers had their crops completely out of the field.
“We’re going to get started this week on some of this corn,” he said. “We raise cattle, too, and we’ve been kind of getting some of the cattle stuff taken care of so we don’t have to stop harvesting the corn once we get started.”
Southeast Iowa planting was a little behind schedule because of spring rain, Delaney said. And then there was a windstorm Sept. 20 that flattened some of his corn. That will mean they have to harvest one direction — opposite of the way the corn fell — because they don’t have special equipment to lift up the slanted stalks. Delaney also worries if they have a breakdown of their harvest equipment, it will be challenging to get a replacement part quickly because of supply chain issues worldwide.
“It’s been kind of a crazy year,” he said.
Delaney harvests with a neighbor. While he’s bringing in the corn and then chopping it up for cattle feed for his herd and his neighbor’s, his neighbor may get started harvesting soybeans from both farms.
“I don’t see how a person can do it all themselves,” Delaney said. “You’ve got to have good neighbors.”
While drought conditions in northern Iowa were bad throughout the summer, Clear Lake farmer Chris Peterson speculated that it may not have a huge impact on the fall harvest.
Peterson said corn that was planted and matured early was harmed “pretty bad” by the drought, but corn planted and matured later in the summer wasn’t impacted as heavily.
“The longer-term corn seems to be doing pretty decent,” Peterson said. “The drought didn’t impact the longer-term maturity corn.”
Peterson said that part of the reason for this was due to some rain that hit North Iowa late in the summer season.
“That was a million-dollar-an-acre rain,” Peterson said. “It saved a lot of crops, and saved a lot of guys.”
But despite some of the negative impacts early on from the drought conditions, Peterson speculates that it will still be a good fall harvest.
“It’s going to be a good year,” Peterson said. “It’s going to be a good year for everybody.”
Kevin Pope of Mason City said that would be true for farmers in certain parts of the northern counties.
“If they live north of Highway 9, then they probably had a good year,” Pope said. “If you talk to a farmer who lives down around Rockford, Swaledale or the Thornton area, those yields down that way are impacted by drought more than everywhere else from what we’ve seen.”
Pope said there are huge amounts of variance in North Iowa from the impacts of the drought conditions, and that some parts of the area that got rain later in the summer will have much better harvests than those that did not.
“If you had rain you’re going to have a good crop, if you didn’t get the rain that some other people did you’re not going to have that good of a crop,” Pope said. “The further north of Mason City you go, the more rain you got.”
Pope expected that some farmers in the southern region of North Iowa could experience up to a 50 percent reduction on bushels produced this fall, although Pope admitted that it’s early and that only time will tell.
Naig and Licht said areas of Iowa hard hit by the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho battled problems this year of “volunteer corn” appearing in soybean fields and other places where the downed grain reemerged during the growing season.
But, “I think by and large those folks have had a good year,” said Naig.
“Harvest is still early, but the yields we’ve been hearing in the last two or three weeks I think the producers are generally surprised that things are exceeding their expectations so overall I think 2021 crop yields are going to be good,” said Matt Vegter, a real estate agent in Nevada who specializes in farm land sales.
Northwest Iowa farmers are seeing a wide range of yields, all dependent on how much rain fell on an area of the state that experienced varying degrees of drought. But what little rain did fall in some areas came at opportune times in late July and August, giving crops a boost and surprising farmers, who have been making rapid progress this week on the bean harvest.
“If you got that rainfall, yields are better than people thought they’d be. Even in the stressed areas they’re pleasantly surprised with how their yields are doing,” said Joel DeJong, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field agronomist based in Le Mars. “I think the average is going to be decent, but the range is going to be wide.”
DeJong said fields that received those timely rains are yielding 80 bushels of beans per acre. Most farmers are seeing bean yields in the 60s and 70s. Drier areas are down in the 50s and lower. He said the area’s yields are average to slightly above average.
“It’s mixed,” he said. “We had some parts of the area that had some nice rain and they’re having really nice yields.”
Chuck White was one of those farmers to benefit from rain at the right time. The 710 acres of corn and beans he farms near Spencer with his son, Patrick, and brother, Kevin, is doing well, thanks in large part to 9 inches of rain that fell from July 10 to Sept. 10.
“I’m extremely happy. It was the timeliness of the rain. When we got the rain, it was just in time. Anytime you got any rain at all, it was really a gift,” said White, a director for the Iowa Soybean Association. “That August rain, that really helped the soybeans. Anybody that was under a cloud, they got a good yield.”
White said his beans so far are yielding a bit above average, with fields producing 60 bushels and into the 70s per acre. He had yet to start on the corn crop.
DeJong said not enough corn has been harvested to accurately gauge this year’s crop. He suspects it will be similar to the bean crop, with yields varying according to the amount of rain received.
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Erin Jordan of The Gazette, Nick Hytrek of the Sioux City Journal and Zachary Dupont of the Globe Gazette in Mason City contributed to this report.