Farmers are reporting generally strong yields but slow progress this fall as damp conditions through mid-October forced them to search around for fields fit for harvest.
High dew points limited hours that farmers were able to cut soybeans, putting soybean harvest six days behind last year’s pace, according to the USDA’s weekly crop progress report Oct. 17.
That’s been especially true in southwest Iowa, said Curt Frazee, a Mills County Farm Bureau member. The USDA estimated just 27 percent of soybeans in the southwest district had been harvested entering last week.
"You drive around the countryside, and there’s beans all over the place," Frazee said last Thursday. "There were several guys who had been running beans who switched to corn. Usually in October, you figure you can start running (beans) in the morning and can run until you get tired or the elevator closes and everything’s full. This year, that hasn’t been the case."
Farmers across the state have been running into the same issue to some degree, said Mark Licht, Iowa State University (ISU) cropping systems specialist.
"We just haven’t had the hours to harvest soybeans," he said. "It’s maybe 11 or 12 before you get in, and once that sun goes down, things start to get tough again. A lot of guys have switched to corn because that’s what they can (combine)."
Some soybeans were coming out with moisture as high as 18 to 19 percent, but a cold front last week finally brought lower humidity and better conditions, Frazee reported.
"The past couple days it finally straightened out. We’ve got a good breeze, even though its cooler," he said. "Lots of guys have been going as hard as they can on beans. There’s going to be a lot of ground made up this week. We’re going to try and hammer away at the beans as long as the weather permits."
Yields have been generally strong across the state, outperforming expectations in many areas, Licht said. The USDA is projecting record corn and soybean yields for Iowa, pegging corn yields at 198 bushels per acre and soybeans at 58 bushels per acre.
Many farmers feared hot, dry weather in June would result in poor yields, but timely rains arrived in July and August, Licht said. Good soil moisture to start the year also helped sustain the crop, he added.
"We know there are problems out there, but by and large this is going to be a good year," he said. "We started out the growing season with a really good soil moisture profile. The roots were able to follow that and stay in moisture. While June was hot and we saw leaf rolling, corn plants were able to recover overnight."
Corn yields in the northwest and west-central crop-reporting districts are down slightly from last year, but yields in the east-central, south-central and southeast districts are projected 18 to 21 bushels better than last year, according to the USDA.
Soybean yields are forecast higher than a year ago in seven of the nine crop-reporting districts, led by the southeastern two-thirds of the state, where yields are averaging 2 to 3 bushels better than a year ago, the USDA said.
"Everybody is pleasantly surprised, especially in northeast Iowa where they had a lot of rain last month and in southeast Iowa where it was dry early," said Licht. "Things are turning out really well."
Drying out fast
Floodwaters destroyed crops along rivers and streams in northeast Iowa last month, but fields have dried out quicker than expected, said Terry Basol, ISU field agronomist in Nashua.
"They’ve got quite a bit of soybeans knocked out and are well into corn," he said. "We haven’t had a major rain event since the flood. It’s allowed farmers to really get after it."
Yields have been favorable for the most part, coming close to equaling last year, Basol said. In ISU field trials at the Nashua research farm, corn yields averaged 200 bushels per acre, and soybeans averaged 59.1 bushels.
In other parts of the state, some soybeans have produced eye-popping yields with whole field averages of 70 to 80 bushels per acre, while in other areas, farmers fought diseases or wet conditions that held yields down, Licht said.
"In north-central Iowa, they’re frustrated with soybean yields in general," he said. "Outside of north-central Iowa, all of the sudden we’re in a different environment."
Greg Rinehart, a Boone County Farm Bureau member, said soybean yields are averaging 50 to 70 bushels and corn is ranging from 180 to 240 in his area.
"Most guys are happy with the harvest, except for the price," he said. "The July and August rains really helped some of the crop, but there’s still some pockets that dried up. I think people are more surprised with the bean yields than the corn yields. Some guys are saying it’s the best beans they’ve ever raised. The corn, some guys would say it’s not as good as last year."
Soybean yields in northwest and north-central Iowa are forecast 1.5 bushels per acre below last year, likely due to excessive rainfall, reported Joel DeJong, ISU field agronomist in Plymouth County.
"I think the western edge (of the northwest district) is probably going to beat last year, but the eastern edge — because of the excess water — might be below it," he said.
Frazee said soybean yields in southwest Iowa are hitting the low 60s, with some even higher. Corn yields are more variable, depending on soil type and timing of summer rains.
"The good parts of the field are good, and the bad parts are bad," he said. "It’s not going to be last year’s crop, but it’s better than average."
Grain piles growing
The large crops, along with old-crop inventories, are causing some grain elevators to make temporary grain piles in addition to their usual covered outdoor piles that have become commonplace, said Charlie Hurburgh, director of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative at ISU.
"These will be high-risk situations this year," he said.
Farmers also need to be aware of potential storage problems because of warm, humid conditions that prevented corn from being cooled to suitable temperatures, Hurburgh said. Grain that goes into storage at warmer temperatures has a shorter storage life, he said.
"With less than ideal cooling conditions, there is undoubtedly a considerable amount of stored grain at temperatures in the 60s and 70s," Hurburgh said. "Dryers and storage bins simply have not been able to get grain cool at this point."
Stalk quality is also becoming a greater concern as harvest stretches into late October.
"People are noting stalk quality is not quite there. Ears are drooping," Licht said. "We’re probably one good windstorm away from having a challenging harvest."