Wet spring leads to late harvest

Photo courtesy of Evan Masterson

A combine harvests a field of beans in southeast Iowa. The harvest is later than normal this year because the crops were planted later in the spring due to wet weather.
Photo courtesy of Evan Masterson A combine harvests a field of beans in southeast Iowa. The harvest is later than normal this year because the crops were planted later in the spring due to wet weather.

A little more than half of this year’s corn and soybean crop in southeast Iowa has been harvested.

As far as how much the two crops will yield, it’s a bit soon to say, but early indications suggest yields will be a little below last year’s, but much better than expected given the bad planting conditions farmers suffered through out the spring.

“I think corn yields will be better than expected but below last year’s, which were record highs in some areas,” said Iowa State University Extension and Outreach farm management specialist Charles Brown, who covers southeast Iowa including Jefferson and Henry counties. “Bean yields will be about average,” he said, adding a lot of beans were not planted until June because of so much rain in May.

Brown said prices for corn and soybeans are “not terrific” but a little better than last year’s. He said net farm income is probably 40-50 percent below its peak in 2013.

Joshua Michel, an ISU Extension field agronomist covering southeast Iowa, said the soggy planting season meant a late planting season, and that has resulted in late-maturing corn and soybeans. Some parts of southeast Iowa got some rain this fall, and that has delayed the harvest even further as some farmers are waiting until their crops are dry to take them from the field.

Early frost

“Farmers have also had to deal with an early frost that came to much of the region, and that shut down those crops from finishing their maturation,” Michel said.

There is a temperature that kills plants and prevents them from maturing. Michel said a “killing frost” for corn is 28 degrees (for a few hours). Most of the state suffered this killing frost in mid- to-late-October even before the large snowfall on Oct. 29-30, though Michel said the very bottom tier of counties in Iowa were saved from it. The significance of a corn plant failing to reach full maturity is that its kernels will be lighter and therefore not nearly as lucrative for the farmer.

Rebecca Vittetoe, an ISU Extension field agronomist covering east central Iowa, said farmers had two weeks of good weather in April in which to plant, but if they missed that window, they had to wait until June in many cases. That led to one problem — a late harvest — which has been compounded by moisture problems in the fall.

Wet crops

“The crops coming out of the field are a lot wetter than normal,” Vittetoe said. “Before the corn can go into bins, it has to dry, so that’s slowing things down. Now that we’re into November, we won’t see much drying in the field. Drying is affected by the wind, relative humidity and temperature, and the colder it is, the less drying we see.”

Vittetoe reported that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s crop report from Nov. 3, 43 percent of corn and 80 percent of soybeans had been harvested in Iowa. For southeast Iowa specifically, 59 percent of the corn and 65 percent of the soybeans had been harvested.

The Union asked Vittetoe if it’s more common for corn or beans to be harvested first. She said it depends a lot on the weather. If farmers have to dry their corn with propane gas, they might start harvesting corn, fill the dryer, and while the dryer is working, harvest beans. This is because they can only harvest corn as quickly as the dryer can dry it. Plus, beans are not normally dried with propane. Farmers usually let them dry in the field.

Brown said that because farmers will have to dry their corn more than normal this year, “this harvest will be a little costlier than in past years.”

Michel said the high moisture content of the fields has been affecting beans, too, as has low test weight.

“Overall, the bean harvest is going well,” Michel said. “I haven’t heard anything yet as far as yield reports. I’ve heard from some farmers who have done well, and others who think it will be a slightly below average yield. The next couple of weeks will tell us a lot about the overall yield in the region.”

Pests and diseases

A new disease beginning to make its mark on the region is one affecting corn called tar spot. It appears to be migrating from Wisconsin into eastern Iowa and now into southeast Iowa. The disease affects the corn’s leaves, preventing them from receiving energy from the sun and thereby blocking photosynthesis, the process of converting light energy into chemical energy. That, in turn, affects how much energy the plant can put into growing its ear.

“If you’re not able to rub it off with your fingernail, there’s a good chance it could be tar spot,” Michel said. “I would recommend checking with your local agronomist to be sure.”

Vittetoe said the biggest pest for soybeans this year was the thistle caterpillar, normally a minor problem. The caterpillars hurt the soybeans by eating their leaves.

“I know some farmers had to spray for them, and mentioned that the defoliation could hurt their yields,” Vittetoe said.

Corn plants, especially those planted early in the year, had to deal with gray leaf spot. Vittetoe concurred with Michel in describing tar spot as a major problem for corn.

“It’s definitely a disease we’re going to talk with farmers about,” Vittetoe said.

Federal aid

Brown said that a large share of farm income this year will come from sources other than the sale of crops. A report from the American Farm Bureau Federation projects that 40 percent of farm income — $33 billion of a projected $88 billion — will come from trade aid, disaster assistance, the farm bill and insurance indemnities.

Since the United States and China began a series of tariffs targeted at the other country in 2018, the U.S. government has made payments to farmers as a way of compensating them for the revenue they lost from the trade war. Formally, this money is known as a Market Facilitation Program payment.

“The government looked at every county in Iowa, and calculated how much that county lost in trade to China,” Brown said. “Farmers were paid a certain dollar amount for each acre they farmed in that county. The only catch was that they had to plant the crop, and if they couldn’t plant, they wouldn’t get the money unless they planted a cover crop by Aug 1. And if they planted a cover crop, they got $15 an acre.”

Another program that has supplemented farmers’ income is the Prevented Planting Insurance, a government-subsidized insurance sold by private companies.

“The premiums that farmers would typically have to pay are around 65-70 percent of what they would otherwise have to pay [absent the subsidies],” Brown said. “Government subsidizes those premiums so farmers can afford to buy insurance, and so that the government doesn’t have to step in with ad hoc payments after a disaster.”