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‘We didn’t see this coming at all’

Excessive heat and lack of rain taking a toll on crops

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby
This corn near Lake City is has suffered immensely due to the drought conditions over the past few months.

For the majority of producers in the state of Iowa, spring planting came and went as fast as it started with little to no issues.

Was it all too good to be true?

For the past few months, conditions have taken a turn for the worse. The lack of rain and high temperatures have put a large part of the area in the D2 (severe drought) range on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We had good soil moisture levels going into spring and that is really what has helped us really hang on this long,” said Angie Rieck-Hinz, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach field agronomist for north central Iowa.

Dennis Todey, director of the Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, said coming into 2020, there was a concern about overly wet conditions.

“We didn’t see this coming at all,” he said.

The drought was primarily in the southwest part of the state, as it has been dry, he said, since late winter.

“They have some of the longer term issues,” said Todey.

That dry area has since moved north and a little east, putting counties such as Webster, Calhoun and Sac as well as counties further south into that D2 category on the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“It’s moving more to the middle part of the state,” he said. “The crops are starting to show some issues in that central part of Iowa.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor, Todey said, is a weekly product that is a partnership between federal and state agencies.

Stages include: None; D0 which is abnormally dry; D1 – moderate drought; D2 – severe drought; D3 – extreme drought and D4 – exceptional drought.

The recent D2 classification in the area, Todey said, is not only based on the lack of precipitation.

“The soil moisture is really limited. It is really affecting crops and grasses,” he said.

When a drought comes to mind, 2012 is the one of most recent memory.

“We are not to 2012 levels yet,” said Todey. “The conditions are pretty bad in western Iowa, but it’s not widespread. We’ve got some problems in the eastern Corn Belt, but they aren’t quite as bad as here. A lot of the area around us is still in pretty good shape, so the comparison to 2012 really doesn’t work.”

Looking ahead, Todey said there could be some relief on the way.

“We have some better news right now going into the early part of August,” he said. “Temperatures are going to be cooler. In fact we may be a little bit cooler than average for part of that timeframe early on and we do have a bit more chances for precipitation.”

Affects on the crops

Rieck-Hinz said there is not much anyone can do when it comes to the impact the drought is having on crops such as corn, soybeans, forages and pastures.

“It is worth having a conversation with your crop insurance agent about what it means from that kind of impact – that is a great place to start,” she said.

“Do we need to ship in some forages for winter feeding? We are seeing more road ditch cutting and maybe water way cutting to get some extra grass bales,” said Rieck-Hinz. “So far, we haven’t had any indication whether we are going to see CRP released or not.”

As far as the affects on corn, the biggest concern at this point, she said, is on grain fill where the ear will not fill out to the end – starting the condition to what is called “tip back.”

“Some of the fairly dry areas I have been looking at, the pollination has been good, it is now just a matter if we can get enough moisture for grain fill,” she said.

It may not be too late for soybeans. Some good August rains could help those plants to reinitiate flowering and go back to pod filling.

To help address these drought issues, ISU Extension is hosting a series of drought webinars and in-person meetings.

Paul Kassel, ISU Extension field agronomist in northwest Iowa, said they will address several issues including feeding of drought damaged crops, crop insurance, crop growth and development.

“What I am going to cover on the crop side of things is confirm and discuss the drought map, discuss those growing degree days — the days we have had over 90 degrees and comparison of this season to the 2012 drought,” he said. “We will talk about crop development with a little bit of yield estimation, it is too early for yield estimates, but we will be putting that tool in people’s hands.”

Kassel said he is hoping for some rains yet in August.

“We might get decent rains in August and have a bumper crop. It really is too early to tell,” he said.

However, in some parts of Sac County that Kassel visited earlier this week, it seems any rains may be too late for some of the corn.

“I wouldn’t call it burned up, but it’s really stressed. You can really see it in any of those light soils,” he said. “Sac City is 7 inches below normal precipitation since April 20 — since crop planting began. And there are areas worse than that.”

Todey said from a harvest standpoint, it may be too early to make any predictions, but he is less concerned about a late harvest this year than last year.

”With the heat and the stress, our crops are probably going to be ahead of average in the way of reaching maturity, so you should have a bit longer period to get in and get them out, unlike last year of the waiting and waiting for things to dry down,” he said.

What to do?

Lawns are obviously also feeling the affects of the recent drought.

Is there anything that can be done?

Dennis Detmering, account manager with Smitty’s Lawn and Landscape of Fort Dodge, said sometimes doing less could be best.

Detmering said they are advising their customers if they are going to water their lawns, to give it a deep soaking once or twice a week for an hour or two at a time, versus just 15 minutes every day.

A deep soaking, he said will allow the roots of the grass to develop down where the water is available.

“If you water for 15 minutes a day, it won’t do any good, in fact, it could cause more harm than good,” he said. “If you put moisture to the top of the surface, that’s where the roots will only go.”

But in Fort Dodge, city officials are urging residents to water their lawns less.

The city has experienced a surge in water demand during the hot weather during a time when one of the water wells is shut down for maintenance. To conserve water, city officials are asking residents to cut down on outdoor water use.

As far as mowing, they are also advising doing enough to clean up any weeds that may be growing and to also be careful of any late-summer fertilization plans.

“If you would fertilize now, there is a potential it will burn the lawn,” he said. “The grass is already stressed as it is, so try not to stress it anymore than you have to.”

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