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Despite concerns about lingering drought conditions in the Midwest, area seed companies are optimistic about the upcoming growing season.
“The drought was first and foremost on everyone's minds going into this year,” said Tim Schanbacher, owner of Schanbacher Seed of Shellsburg. “But we're planning on having a tremendous year.”
Iowa's topsoil remains at drier than normal levels, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month. A wetter-than-normal March provided little relief due to below-normal temperatures.
“The moisture doesn't do much good when the ground is frozen,” Schanbacher explained.
The National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center has said conditions across the upper Mississippi Valley are likely to improve through the end of June, suggesting that Schanbacher's optimism might not be misplaced.
For the last 15 years, Schanbacher has worked as an independent sales representative for DuPont Pioneer. He sells mainly corn and soybean seed to local farmers in a territory that includes Atkins, Newhall, Shellsburg, Palo and Norway.
Schanbacher uses his knowledge of his customer's fields to place the right product in the right acre. Through field mapping, he matches soil types and field conditions with the hybrids and varieties that perform best in those conditions.
This helps his customers maximize their yields.
“But Mother Nature is the great equalizer,” Schanbacher said. “We've been blessed with good crops more often than not, but last year brought us back to reality.
“There are things we just can't control.”
With last summer's dry conditions fresh on his customers' minds, Schanbacher's top sellers this year are two varieties of Pioneer's AQUAmax product, which is billed as a drought-tolerant corn hybrid.
Turning to conservation
According to Jim Welter of Welter Seed & Honey Co. in Onslow, some farmers are looking to soil-conservation practices to revive their drought-stricken fields and pastures.
The family-owned seed company that was founded by Welter's parents in 1955 offers a full line of agricultural seed, including a large selection of certified organic seed. The company's top-selling products are cover crops, such as oats, rye, alfalfa and clovers, and forage grasses.
Cover crops are planted during the fallow periods between the harvesting and planting of the main crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, he explained.
Cover crop combinations such as rye and radish or oats and turnips “are used to help penetrate the soil and scavenge nitrogen and nutrients up to the root zone for the next crop,” Welter said. They are then used as animal feed, or plowed under to add biomass to the soil.
Drought-stressed fields are particularly vulnerable to the leaching of nitrate, making the nitrogen-trapping qualities of cover crops even more important following a dry growing season. Cover crops also help prevent soil erosion, control weeds and pests, increase water infiltration and enhance soil water storage.
With the drought, Welter has seen an increased interest in using cover crops to mitigate the effects of dry conditions.
“There has been a lot of attention in the media about how much good they do for soil,” he said. “It's important for the life of the soil to have something green on the fields for a few more months or even all winter.”
While the drought may be easing in Eastern Iowa, other areas of the country remain locked in a severe drought conditions. Welter, who has customers located all over the United States, said the continuing dry weather in Texas and the western Plains has livestock farmers seeking emergency forage sources for cattle.
Sorghum is a popular choice for forage use this year because it is more drought-tolerant than corn or other grains. A March 28 USDA prospective plantings report indicated farmers intend to plant 22 percent more sorghum acres than in 2012.
But weather has influenced seed production.
“Customers are scurrying to find sorghum for forage use, but there is a limited supply of seed due to the drought,” Welter said.
He said the drought also has created tight supplies of alfalfa seed and higher prices of hay.
Of course, farmers weren't the only ones affected by the drought. Golf courses, municipal parks, sports fields and residential lawns also took a hit.
Many people took advantage of mild weather late last year to over-seed turf that had burned out in the drought and did not come back. That put Pace Supply Turf & Landscape in an unusual position in December.
“We were selling ice melt and grass seed at the same time,” said Deb Proctor, manager of the Fairfax-based business, which specializes in grass seed, fertilizer, erosion control products, hydro mulch and sports field products.
Pace Supply also benefited from 2012's drier-than-normal conditions by robust sales of its Kifco water reels. The above-ground irrigation systems range in price from around $4,000 to over $30,000.
“We sold 18 of them last year,” Proctor said.
Drought is just one weather-related hit on the seed business. Both Schanbacher and Welter noted that farmers are a month behind in planting this year due to the late arrival of spring.
Proctor said the cold spring also has delayed turf seeding because the soil temperature has been too cold for grass to germinate. But after more than 17 years in the business, she has learned to take the weather in stride.
“In reality, 80 degrees on St. Patrick's Day last year was a fluke. This year is a fluke, too,” she said.