Despite challenges from the weather, a pandemic and tough economics, Iowa farmers are preparing now for spring planting while working to manage around the larger issues causing disruptions all around them.

In north central Iowa, Winnebago County Farm Bureau member Scott Anderson said spring 2020 is, weather-wise, shaping up better than 2019.

“The snow is gone; the frost is mostly gone,” he said last week.  “Now we just need a little sunshine to dry things out. That would do wonders.”

Anderson hasn't experienced any direct supply issues due to COVID-19. His main concern is the economic impact. He supplies two ethanol plants and a feed mill. Both ethanol plants in his area have reduced production in recent weeks, leaving him with fewer options to market his stored grain.

Jason McManis, an Adams County Farm Bureau member, said he’s already hard at work in southwest Iowa spreading seed on pastures. 

“The growing season looks pretty positive right now,” he said. “Every year has its challenges, so we’ll see what happens.”

In northeast Iowa, Clayton County Farm Bureau member Erling Bilden adapted to the wet 2019 season by adding rye cover crops on his fields last fall. 

“In this area we’re always worried about heavy rains,” Bilden said. “We have rolling land and not a lot of terracing. Washouts are an issue.”

He said so far, the cover crops and no-till practices seem to be helping, but he’ll know more in the next month or so. His plan now is to wet bale the rye and wrap it to feed his cattle.

Normal or late planting? 

Mark Licht, cropping systems specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said weather continues to have the biggest impact on planting plans for 2020, just as it did in 2019.

“We’ve missed our chance for an early planting season already,” he said. “Now it’s a question of whether we’ll see normal or late planting.”

Licht estimates with good planting conditions, Iowa farmers can plant about 1 million acres per day. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prospective planting estimate calls for Iowa farmers to plant 14.1 million acres of corn this year and 9.3 million acres of soybeans. Given these estimates, Licht said Iowa farmers need to find 23 to 25 “suitable” days by mid-May to get the crop in.

Watching the sky

Dennis Todey, director of the USDA’s Midwest Climate Hub, said April is trending a little cooler and dryer than average. Since soil moisture is high from last year, the cooler temperatures will prevent some fields from drying out in a timely manner. 

“Soil compaction and soil loss will continue to be a problem given the wetness,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a terrible year, but there will be problems.”

Acreage estimates

The USDA’s prospective plantings report last week indicated U.S. farmers intend to plant 97 million acres of corn and 83.5 million acres of soybeans. 

Anderson is watching the markets and keeping his options open for planting this year. He has access to plenty of seed corn and soybeans; he now has to decide what his ratio will be.

“We’re playing the wait and see game right now,” Anderson said. “I’ll possibly switch some corn acres into beans depending on what prices do.”

The prospective planting report indicates farmers intend to plant 7.3 million more corn acres than in 2019, a projected 8% year-over-year increase, although the survey was done before COVID-19 shook up markets. 

For soybeans, the USDA estimates planted area this year to be 83.5 million acres, up 7.4 million acres. Last year’s lower soybean acreage was a result of delayed spring planting and adverse price impacts from retaliatory tariffs applied by China.