The autumn harvest brought “a nice surprise” to Greg Toben, who farms about 2,500 acres of cropland planted to wheat, corn and soybeans north of Clear Lake, S.D.
Toben, who farms with his son, Jason, and his brother, Clark, was amazed in late September to find his corn yielding from 100 to 175 bushels an acre after the hot, dry summer.
“And 13 percent moisture,” Toben added, relishing the saving of drying costs. He credited a couple of half-inch rains in July for transforming his harvest from potentially dismal to delightful.
“It was just good timing,” he said.
Those rains also helped Toben’s soybeans come in at 20 to 45 bushels an acre, putting a wide, appreciative smile on the longtime producer’s face.
Across South Dakota and into southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, there were many pleasant surprises for many farmers once they got into the fields. Liz Stahl, a university of Minnesota Extension educator for crops, said people had pretty low expectations going into the fall.
“Overall, I think many people were pleasantly surprised. We had some fields that didn’t yield very well at all with the drought issues, but on the other hand, we had some fields yielding fantastic. It was such a range of extremes, with fields from zero to 8 bushels an acre on corn in some fields to more than 200 in others. It was extremely variable across the region, but I think it’s better than we anticipated going into harvest,” Stahl said.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey of Spirit Lake finished up his harvest on his farm east of the Iowa Great Lakes last weekend and averaged about 53 bushels an acre on his beans and 160 on his corn, giving him a boost from what he expected when the rains refused to come this summer.
“It sure didn’t seem like it was going to be that good,” said the secretary, who is in his second term in the office. “But the roots got down far enough to get to the moisture.”
It wasn’t the same for all producers in northwest Iowa, though, as so much depended on spotty and timely rains and soil types.
And in parts of South Dakota, especially the southeastern and south-central areas south of Interstate 90, it was a full-blown disaster for many producers.
“For the most part, they all took a pretty good hit,” said Larry Wagner, an SDSU Extension agronomist based in Sioux Falls.
For some producers, it was no crop at all.
“In Yankton and Bon Homme counties, the corn has been gone for two months. They just chopped it all out of there,” he said.
It wasn’t much better in Beresford, S.D., also in the far southeastern part of the state.
At a meeting on the Marlow and Donna Christensen & Sons farm near Beresford, U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., met with farmers from the area this past week to talk about the drought.
“The devastation is truly amazing,” Johnson said.
Marlow Christensen said his family cut about 1,000 acres of corn to silage this year, when they usually do about 250 acres. And the yield on that 1,000 acres? Six bushels an acre was the best, he said.
“We are going to have to buy corn,” he said of his family’s huge feedlot operation, visible from Interstate 29.
Also at the meeting, longtime producer Louis VanderLaan, who lives about 10 miles northwest of Beresford, brought an aerial photograph of his feedlot and the surrounding landscape to the meeting.
“It looks like the Mojave Desert,” he said of his drought-ravaged land.
When asked whether he ever had seen his land in such a condition in his 50-plus years of farming, he said, simply, “Never.”
Although the farmers at the meeting told Johnson that crop insurance helped them somewhat, they sure would have rather had a crop.
Mike O’Connor, also a Union County farmer, said he rather would have had 180 bushels to 190 bushels an acre of corn than have a crop insurance check that gave him probably the equivalent of 120 bushels an acre.
Another Beresford farmer, Larry Birgen, who raises corn and soybeans and is president of his local elevator board, said the elevator took in about one-fourth of the corn crop it usually gets, with most of it going to nearby ethanol plants.
“The impact of the drought is huge,” Craig Schaunaman, executive director of the South Dakota Farm Services Agency, said at the meeting.
The USDA’s nationwide crop production report released Oct. 11 showed that South Dakota suffered the most among upper Midwest states with an average corn yield at 94 bushels an acre, down 2 bushels an acre from Sept. 1 and substantially lower than last year’s 132 bushels an acre. The state’s total corn crop was estimated at 5 million bushels, down from last year’s 6.5 million.
Iowa and Nebraska also had substantially lower yield and production figures. However, Minnesota not only had a larger corn crop, but the statewide yield average of 168 bushels an acres was actually up from last year’s 156.
Iowa had an average of 140 bushels an acre, down from 172 last year, and a corn crop that fell from 2.3 billion bushels last year to 1.9 billion this year. Nebraska saw its average corn yield drop from 160 bushels an acre last year to 142 this year, with the overall crop dropping from 1.5 billion bushels to 1.3 billion.
It was pretty much the same story in the four states on soybeans, with South Dakota seeing a major production drop and declines also seen in Iowa and Nebraska, while Minnesota saw an increased statewide yield and output figure.
The USDA report estimated South Dakota’s soybean yield at 28 bushels per acre, down from 37 last year. Production fell from 1.5 million bushels last year to 1.3 million this year.
In Iowa, the statewide yield fell from 51.5 bushels an acre last year to 43 this year, although on the bright side, it was up from the Sept. 1 estimate of 39 bushels per acre. Iowa is estimated to have produced about 4 million bushels of soybeans this year, compared to 4.7 million last year.
Nebraska saw its average yield drop to 41 bushels per acre, down from 54 last year. Overall, output dropped in the Cornhusker State to 2 million bushels, down from 2.6 million last year.
Minnesota once again was the darling of the upper Midwest, with an average soybean yield going up from 39 bushels an acre to 43. Production was up to 3 million bushels, an increase from last year’s 2.7 million.
Stahl said August rains in Minnesota helped as the pod fill was going on. “It was really critical,” she said.
With timely rains and soil type making a huge difference in many areas of the region, the lack of rainfall this fall is a major concern to producers. Stahl said that at the University of Minnesota’s ag experiment station in Lamberton, they aren’t detecting any moisture available in the top 3 feet of soil.
“Realistically, being in mid-October, we’re not going to get it recharged this fall,” she said. “What’s the likelihood of getting the 6 inches to 12 inches of rain, which is what we need in many areas, to catch up before the ground is frozen?”
Northey agreed. He said that while he hurried to get his harvesting completed last weekend because he was expecting rain, it never came. Meanwhile, in Des Moines, 2 inches of rain fell. However, he said there was no standing water seen anywhere as it simply soaked into the parched soil quickly.
“We really need the rain,” Northey said.
Last year, the region also was short of moisture going into winter, but heavier rains in the spring got the crops started. The spigot shut off soon after that, plunging the land into a widespread drought.
Wagner said he was at a conference in Michigan where one of the topics was climate and speakers voiced a real concern about back-to-back droughts.
“If that happens, it would get really bad. It would be hard to take two years in a row,” he said.
Schaunaman said climatologists he has talked with don’t see much precipitation coming by the end of the year. “It’s getting a lot of people really nervous,” he said.
To show what a difference the magical moisture on the crop can make, Wagner said irrigators were the big winners this past year. “It made sense in two ways: They got a much better crop and also got much better prices.”
He said with the two factors in play, he saw some remarkable figures from irrigators in Union County in far southeastern South Dakota and from Nebraska, where irrigation is more common. Corn producers there normally would see an $80 to $100 profit per acre, but this year they were seeing profits of $300 per acre.
Wagner said some Union County corn producers got 200 bushels an acre where the crops sucked up the 10 inches of water they received from irrigation systems. “And they would have put more water on if they could have,” he said.
Among bright spots to the harvest were its unusually early completion, giving producers a chance to catch up on other field or farm work, and lower moisture levels in crops, reducing drying costs.
In South Dakota, according to the USDA weekly crop report Oct. 15, 90 percent of the corn harvest and 98 percent of the bean harvest had been completed. The five-year average on corn is 22 percent completed by this time.
About the only field work remaining is harvesting of sunflowers, which is only about half done in South Dakota, and finishing up the planting of winter wheat. Another sign of the dry conditions is that only 11 percent of winter wheat has emerged, behind last year’s estimate of 65 percent and the five-year average of 67 percent.
Stahl had some advice for producers, cautioning against putting nitrogen on until soil temperatures are 50 degrees or lower at 6-inch depth. She also encouraged producers to do soil sampling to 2 feet deep, compared to the usual 6 inches, to see what’s available. She said the Extension website on crop management at www.extension.umn.edu/nutrient-management has calculators and other good information for producers.
Northey said he is concerned about livestock producers and feed availability. Nationally, the USDA crop production report said that corn output is forecast at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13 percent from last year. Yield was estimated at 122 bushels per acre, down 25.2 bushels an acre from last year. That would be lowest average yield since 1995.
Soybean production nationally was estimated at 2.86 billion bushels, down 8 percent from last year. Average yield is forecast at 37.8 bushels per acre, down 4.1 bushels from last year.
With those sobering numbers, Northey said, “We are going to need every bushel harvested to get us through until next year’s crop comes in. ... It’s a struggle for livestock producers. They have no protection against feed costs.”
And dairy farmers, Northey said, aren’t faring any better with the skyrocketing cost of hay and high prices for corn and soybeans if they haven’t forward-contracted for the feed.
Producers at the Johnson meeting also expressed concerns about livestock producers.
“There’s no safety net,” Christensen said. “We’re going to need a lot of feed to get through to next spring.”
Schaunaman said he is worried about the quantity and quality of water for livestock, especially out west.
So it might be a long fall and winter for producers. Then it’ll be another wait-and-hope game in the spring to see whether the rains fall to replenish the soil.
Snowfall might help somewhat this winter, but as Stahl said, “One inch of rain for 10 inches of snow is the standard.” And snow can simply run off in the spring without helping recharge the soil much.
Tri-State Neighbor Editor Bruce Falk contributed to this report.