Dry summer, wet fall challenge to some farmers

GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske

A dry summer resulted in an early crop season this fall.
GTNS photo by Gretchen Teske A dry summer resulted in an early crop season this fall.

The 2018 corn and soybean harvest began a bit earlier this year as the dry summer heat weakened crops and reduced yields. Even so, producers progress is slowed by heavy fall rains across southeastern Iowa, creating a difficult and potentially dangerous work environment.

The good news is moisture in the soil is being replenished for the next growing season, which will be beneficial to farmers in 2019 if they can make ends meet to stay in the game for another year.

“(The) farm crisis in the mid-’80s wiped out a generation of farmers,” said Virgil Schmitt, Crops and Field Specialist at the Iowa State Extension Office. “We want to make sure we don’t do that same thing again.”

Alan Miller, who farms southeast of Salem and in Van Buren and Lee counties, said the next year won’t be easy. Not only are farmers cutting back on their yields this year, but the price is way down. On some of Alan’s better farms, they typically harvest around 200 bushels. This year, he said it’s more like 130 to 140 bushels.

“That’s kind of a double whammy,” Alan said, adding it could eliminate some farmers in the area, especially if they are overextended themselves financially and overpaid for farm equipment. “They’re going to lose money.”

Schmitt agrees, saying younger farmers who maybe have a lot of debt on their machinery or against their land could find it challenging to make those payments in the next year.

“We’re probably going to lose a few people this winter because of that unfortunately,” Schmitt said. “That’s what’s really concerning because we have difficulty getting young farmers interested in the first place.”

Alan, who began harvesting corn on Sept. 5 and beans on Sept. 17, said some of his peers had already farmed 500 acres of corn by the last week of September. It was July when “rainfall just stopped,” Alan commented. It stayed warm and things deteriorated, he said.

By mid-August, Alan said it had only rained five and a half inches all summer. The corn started to die. To make things worse, the storm on Aug. 28, which brought straight-line winds to Henry County flattened dead corn, making it difficult to harvest by combine.

Tom Miller, a farmer near Olds and no relation to Alan Miller, said while the crops have been under significant heat stress this summer, it’s amazing how good the yields have been. He attributes it to genetically modified seeds, saying if they had seen this summer in the 80s, the crops wouldn’t have near the resiliency they have today.

Regardless, Tom has seen a lot of wind damage to his crop as well. “It’s almost impossible to pick the corn up off the ground,” he said. “You end up with a lot more field loss with the downed crop.”

Tom, too, is ahead of schedule for harvesting his crops, which he began in mid-September and hopes to be done with by mid-October.

The weakened crops are due in part to them cannibalizing themselves, Schmitt said. Essentially, the plants are using the energy in the stems to be fruitful and fill the grain. Low moisture also just keeps plants, particularly corn, from producing stalks as strong as they should be.

While farmers may be frustrated by their wet fields, experts discourage them from mudding out the crop — harvesting the crop in wet soil — as the extra strain on equipment can have long-lasting effects.

Another challenge farmers face every year is sharing the road. Schmitt said just the other day that he followed a bailer for five miles in a no-passing zone. Farmers have been on both sides — they’ve been behind the slow-moving equipment when they want to be in a hurry and they’ve been in the slow-moving equipment.

“People who are not farmers need to recognize those people are doing important work and share the road,” Schmitt said.

Farmers can in turn notice if traffic is backing up behind them and pull off into a driveway or crossroad as the opportunity presents itself to let traffic go by. Additionally, farmers can double check their lighting systems, flashing lights and fix “slow moving vehicle” signs to the back of their equipment.

“The big thing is the more in a hurry we get, the more important it is to take breaks,” Schmitt said. “It’s counterintuitive, but it really is true. We need is to take time to take breaks to keep our minds fresh and calm.”