116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WEST CHESTER — Time was running short for Sheila Fisher as she planted soybeans on a recent Friday on the family farmstead west of West Chester.
Rain was forecast for the weekend, and the 31-year-old farmer was driving a tractor nearly twice her age, soybeans filling the grain drill. Already she and her dad had finished planting corn, and now she was working the soybean fields.
Altogether the family farms 450 acres — this year split evenly between corn and soybeans. She did not finish the field she was working. Temperatures were cooling, and the anticipated rain would be cold.
“We just wanted the warmer temperatures,” she said.
About 90 miles northeast, Bob Ryan, 38, of Ryan, also was watching the sky from his shop, where he was rebuilding part of the family planter to try to fix some plugging issues so they could get the last 200 acres of soybeans planted.
“We worked 11 days straight. We got almost the entire crop in,” Ryan said, adding that it was the longest string of consecutive days of planting in his 14-year farming career.
Farmers always are watching the forecast to figure out when to plant, but this year drought conditions gripping much of the state have raised anxiety levels. At the same time, corn and soybean prices are higher than they’ve been for a while and farmers see the potential for 2021 to be a good year — if they get rain when they need it.
Planting ahead of schedule
As of last Monday, 86 percent of Iowa’s corn crop had been planted, 10 days ahead of the five-year average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported. Farmers had planted just over two-thirds of the state’s expected soybean crop, 15 days ahead of schedule.
“The early planting may not result in drastically earlier emergence and growth,” said Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “This year, I have one neighbor who planted corn on April 7, 8 and 9 and the other neighbor planted two weeks later. They (the plants) both emerged within a day or two from each other.”
Farmers generally want to get their seeds in the ground by mid-May to allow a long enough growing season to get full yield, he said.
Tom Darbyshire was planting corn on 140 acres just south of Mount Union in Henry County, the last of nearly 1,000 acres he farms near Yarmouth. He wanted to get the corn planted before the rain was forecast May 8 and 9.
“We’ve been going for quite a while,” he said.
Adjusting for the drought
The amount of moisture in the soil is critical to seed germination and more than half of Iowa’s subsoil has “short” or “very short” moisture levels, USDA reported.
More than half of Iowa counties are considered “abnormally dry” or in “moderate drought” according to Thursday’s report from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Rain over Mother’s Day weekend improved conditions in southern Iowa, but the northern part of the state has missed out on recent rains. A handful of counties in northwest Iowa are considered in “severe drought.”
“Our water table is roughly 2 feet deeper than it normally is at the time of planting,” Licht said. If the state gets timely rain, the crops may grow deeper roots to get to the water table — which is good — but if the soil remains dry, the roots may not grow as deep as they should.
Farmers buy seed the previous fall, so it’s too late to switch to drought-tolerant varieties, Licht said. But they can adjust planting depth — sowing the seeds 3 inches down instead of 2 to find moist soil that will help with germination.
Ryan said they were fortunate in Linn County because there were good rains before the ground was frozen. Then heavy snow cover insulated the earth and didn’t allow a deep frost line. When the snow melted, a lot of it was able to soak into the ground rather than running off, he said.
“We felt pretty confident going into this spring, where we are,” he said.
Crop prices bring optimism, spending
The price for last year’s stored soybeans is as high as $16 a bushel, while contracts for this year’s beans are going for $13 or $14 a bushel. The per-bushel price for corn last week was just over $7, about double the price in May 2020.
The surge is prompted by fears of a shortage because of dry conditions in the Midwest and in Brazil, another major soybean exporter.
The USDA reported in January that Chinese buyers contracted to buy 758,300 metric tons of last year’s U.S. soybeans and 66,000 tons for delivery in 2021-22, AgriPulse reported. In addition, there were 260,000 tons of exports to “unknown destinations,” which often are China.
“Overall, globally we’re up 70 percent,” Grant Kimberley, Iowa Soybean Association director of market development, said about soybean exports this year so far compared with last year. “And there still are more shipments on the books for later on this year.”
The eight-year high in commodity prices has caused Iowa farmers to spend more money on clothing, home improvement materials and farm machinery, Rueters reported last month. With the potential of earning big profits, farmers are willing to rent land for $400 or more per acre, farmers said.
The Aug. 10, 2020, derecho tore a west-to-east path through about 3.5 million acres of Iowa corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship found using satellite imagery.
Of Farm Business Network members in Iowa surveyed after the storm, 15 percent, or farmers representing 2.3 million acres, reported “laid down corn” as a result, Successful Farming reported.
Kimberley, whose family farms in Central Iowa, said those places where corn was so flat it could not be harvested will still have corn on the ground that will come up as volunteer plants this season.
“It’s like a weed and competes for nutrients,” he said. “It’s easier to control volunteer corn in soybean fields the next year. Sometimes farmers will have to grow more soybeans so there will be more acres (of soybeans) planted where the derecho was the strongest.”
Photos of crumpled steel grain bins showed the impact of 100-mph winds on empty bins. Farmers have replaced some of the tens of millions of bushels of grain storage lost in the storm, but COVID-19 slowed the supply chain for materials and labor also is scarce, Kimberley said.
On the bright side, most grain bins are covered by insurance, Tim Christensen, ISU farm management specialist, told AgriPulse last fall. If crop prices remain high, farmers might be able to sell more of their crops in the fall rather than having to store them in hopes of better prices later.