USA - Eastern Iowa crops and livestock suffer through one of the driest summers on record

25.09.2023 138 views

Dave Lubben, 68, has been farming since he was 20 years old.

His Monticello land currently houses about 1,500 acres of corn and soybean row crops, 150 acres of hay, 240 beef cows and a 500-head feedlot. His 500 acres of pasture typically can fuel his livestock through most of the summer.

This year, they didn’t.

“When you walk across the pastures, the grass is so dry it crinkles under your feet,” Lubben said. At the time, his land hadn’t seen rain in a month. “When it does rain, you notice the grass comes back … and then about two weeks later, it starts getting shorter. And then you think, ‘Oh, I'm in trouble.’”

He started supplementing his cows’ diets with oats and hay in early June — the earliest he can remember doing so. It takes extra time and has cut into his winter feed supplies by 20 percent. He has to chop 30 percent more corn silage or earlage than usual to make up the winter feed deficit.

His crops lagged, too. Lubben estimated his corn yields will be down between 25 to 30 bushels an acre. He thinks his soybeans may see a similar drop as well.

Drought conditions have continued to worsen across Eastern Iowa this summer. Exceptional drought — the most severe drought ranking — covers about 5 percent of the state, the greatest extent Iowa has seen since the start of the U.S. Drought Monitor in 2000. Almost three quarters of the state is experiencing severe drought or worse.

Overall, 2023 ranks in the top 10 driest years for Northeast and East-Central Iowa. Linn and Benton counties each have received less than 50 percent of normal rainfall throughout the summer, marking their record-driest summers. About 80 percent of the state’s topsoil moisture levels ranked below adequate, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Crop Progress and Condition report Monday.

“The current drought, which is approaching 170 consecutive weeks of at least moderate drought conditions somewhere in the state, has been the longest in the U.S. Drought Monitor’s nearly 24-year period of record," said Justin Glisan, the state drought coordinator and climatologist, in a statement.

Those conditions have taken their toll on crops and livestock in Eastern Iowa, particularly into the northeast corner of the state. Harvest is just getting started — but many farmers aren’t optimistic about this year’s yields.

Variable impacts to crops

Iowa started 2023 with drought congregating in its western swaths. By summer, dry conditions had stretched over most of the state. Northeastern Iowa further deteriorated, slipping into extreme drought in August. Linn County entered its driest conditions in more than a decade.

That drought, plus extreme heat at some points in the summer, zapped much needed moisture from Iowa’s soils throughout the growing season. Without it, many crops were left to thirst — especially in the state’s northeastern corner.

Corn crops heavily depend on rains in July into August, when kernels enter their final steps of maturation called grain fill. In the last part of grain fill, the kernels will dent as starch levels increase and moisture levels decrease. Once starch fills to the base of the kernel, that kernel is fully mature.

The potential for yield loss is much higher earlier in that dent stage, as opposed to later when more starch has been able to accumulate.

“When it first starts to dent, we obviously have more time to fill or pack that kernel with goodies,” which increases the weight of the final yield, said Rebecca Vittetoe, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field agronomist. “We want to be able to have a longer period to fill that.”

Many fields in Vittetoe’s coverage area, which stretches between Marion and Jones counties, saw dry conditions earlier in the dent stage. Terry Basol, an ISU field agronomist for seven counties in Northeast Iowa, saw similar conditions in his area.

Quicker kernel maturation leads to earlier harvests. That will impact crop yields across Eastern Iowa this year, particularly in the areas impacted by the drought more, like the far northeastern corner.

“The kernels are there,” Vittetoe said, “they're just not going to fill the way that we wanted them to.”

Soybeans, on the other hand, depend on rains in August into September. That’s when they work on growing beans in their pods. With stress from heat and drought, some plants don’t have the resources to fill all their pods, so they give up and abort some. They may produce smaller beans as well.

August marked the sixth month in a row of less than normal rainfall. Northeast Iowa received less than half its expected rainfall during the summer months, marking its second-driest summer on record.

Both Basol and Vittetoe reported seeing aborted pods in fields in their regions, likely decreasing farmers’ overall yields.

Chad Ingels, a producer in Fayette County who has been farming for 30 years, had to replant up to 15 percent of his soybean crops after his first attempt didn’t sprout in the parched soils. It was his first time having to replant due to dry conditions. And he’s still projecting significant yield loss across his crops.

What will yields end up looking like for both corn and soybeans? It’s still hard to say at this point when harvesting has only just begun.

Weather and soil conditions — and thus, crop conditions — vary across Iowa. Some fields in southeast, southern, central and southwest are seeing better yields than expected, according to reporting by Iowa Capital Dispatch. But Basol said yields in his area, which contains swaths of exceptional drought, will likely trend down.

“Highly variable. I guess those would be the main words I would use for what's coming out,” he said. “It's kind of all over the board.”

“In some areas, people have been pleasantly surprised. And then in other areas, they kind of knew what to expect. They knew yields weren't going to be as good,” Vittetoe said. “It's just so variable out there, depending upon the moisture that you received during the growing season.”

Livestock and their feed slumping

Denise Schwab, an ISU beef specialist who covers 16 counties in Northeast and East-Central Iowa, said this year’s drought has been severe — but, similar to crop reports, its impacts on livestock have been variable.

Pastures in her coverage area have taken large hits from the drought conditions, and even more so from the hot spell in late August. The extreme heat baked the topsoil and shallow roots in pasture grasses, shutting growth down. Pasture conditions reached their lowest rating since Sept. 6, 2020.

With the poor pasture regrowth, some ranchers — like Lubben — supplement their cattle’s diet with corn silage. That silage must be chopped at the right moisture to preserve it long-term, which could be difficult to achieve with variable corn crop conditions. And, like Lubben, some ranchers feed their livestock hay and cut into their winter feed supplies.

Hay yields themselves are down as well for some farmers. Schwab reported that a big chunk of her coverage area is harvesting 80 percent of its normal hay yields. Others received early spring rains that helped their first crops along, but their second and third cuttings have come up short.

“I think we'll see some real issues with tight feed supplies and high feed costs this winter, especially on the cattle end of things,” Schwab said.

The heat takes a toll on livestock themselves. Cattle typically can handle hot daytime temperatures, but without cooler temperatures at night, they never get the chance to recharge.

Hot and humid weather in late August severely stressed livestock across Iowa, leading to several reports of death loss, according to a USDA Crop Progress and Conditions report. By September, reports of death loss trailed down, although livestock still were under heat stress. Across the Midwest, hundreds of cattle have been reported lost this summer.

Some producers sold livestock due lack of water and feed supplies. Others reported taking livestock off pastures where ponds and creeks dried up.

Schwab said a handful of feed yards in her area lost a few heavy steers during the heat spell. Veterinarians reported significant declines in milk production for dairy cows, as well as calving issues and early-term abortions.

“The first thing to cut off when you're in stress is the pregnancy, and then the next thing with stress is the whole reproductive system,” Schwab said.

Some ranchers provided more shade for their cattle, like trees or windbreaks, to protect them from the heat. They also added extra water tanks to stave off dehydration in the summer sun. Several feed lots installed sprinkler systems to cool off their herds.

A waiting game

Portions of Iowa saw some much-needed rain throughout last week. Since most of it fell after the deadline for the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, its impact to Iowa’s drought conditions wasn’t reflected.

The weekend offered smatterings of rain to Iowa’s parched grounds. Parts of Northeast Iowa were expecting even 1 to 2 inches of rain. Combined with last week’s rain, it should help bolster conditions throughout Eastern Iowa and prevent continued degradation.

But the rain likely won’t be a “drought buster,” said meteorologist Brian Pierce of the National Weather Service Quad Cities Bureau. Northeast Iowa’s precipitation deficits range anywhere between 9 to 15 inches; it needs much more water to wholly recover.

“Any rain absolutely helps, although it’s hard to say if it wipes out the drought by any means,” agreed meteorologist Johnathan Naylor of the weather service’s La Crosse Bureau, which covers Northeast Iowa into Wisconsin and Minnesota. “I don't think that would be the case.”

At this point, rain won’t make a difference to this year’s crops and grazing conditions. So far, 5 percent of the state’s corn has been harvested, along with 3 percent of its soybeans. Only time will tell how yields may turn out.

Earlier this month, the USDA projected Iowa’s corn yields for the year to hit 200 bushels per acre. If correct, it would align with yields from last year — another drought year. In 2021, also another dry year, corn yields sat at 205 bushels per acre.

Soybean yield forecasts are 58 bushels per acre, half a bushel below last year’s yield. In 2021,soybean yields reached 62 bushels per acre.

With soil moisture at a loss, Basol said farmers in his area are holding off on planting cover crops — potentially for the rest of the year. The plants would not fare well in the dry conditions and would also draw even more moisture from the parched soils, leaving crops with even less next growing season.

August’s extreme heat also is expected to lead to pregnancy losses for cattle, Schwab said. Producers do pregnancy tests between now and Christmas, giving an early report card for how many cows are pregnant. But it’s a waiting game to see if those pregnancies last until completion come calving season in the spring.

Iowa producers won’t know what next year will bring. Without enough precipitation this winter and spring, soil moisture reserves may be looking dry again next growing season. Some farmers are preparing with irrigation; şişli escort others, like Lubben, will rely on drought-tolerant corn hybrids. All will wish for better weather conditions come spring.

“You just do your operation every year the same, hoping that you'll average out. That's basically what we really ended up doing,” Lubben said. “And then hope for a normal rainfall.”

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