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Drought expands in Iowa, water management mitigate loss

Article cover photo
With moderate drought conditions affecting nearly half the state, soybean condition rating fell to 2 percent very poor, 8 percent poor, 27 percent fair, 54 percent good and 9 percent excellent. Two weeks ago, 72 percent of the crop was in good to excellent condition. (Photo: Joseph Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matthew Wilde, ISA senior writer

Crops are slowly deteriorating as dry conditions grip much of the state.

Nearly half of Iowa is considered abnormally dry or in a moderate drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor released July 13. The moderate drought area has nearly doubled to 16 percent since the Fourth of July. Three months ago, less than 5 percent of the state was abnormally dry.

Farmers said more rain is needed with soybeans and corn in the critical reproduction period. The exception is far northeast Iowa, which received up to 7 inches of rain in some areas of Clayton County last week.

“We won’t raise the same crop in Iowa we did last year,” said Lindsay Greiner, whose Keota farm is in the abnormally dry region and on the edge of the moderate drought. Iowa produced a record 572 million bushels of soybeans last year averaging 60.5 bushels per acre, government data shows.

At last week’s Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) District 9 annual meeting, the ISA treasurer said his soybeans still look OK.

“But you don’t have to drive far to see poor fields.” Greiner added. “Later planted soybeans look tough.”

Hot and dry weather is taking a toll on crops, according to the weekly Iowa Crop Progress and Condition Report released on Monday.

Fifty-four percent of Iowa’s soybeans are blooming and 11 percent are setting pods, the report said. The soybean condition rating fell to 2 percent very poor, 8 percent poor, 27 percent fair, 54 percent good and 9 percent excellent. Two weeks ago, 72 percent of the crop was in good to excellent condition.

Corn conditions have declined slightly as well. Seventy-one percent of the crop is rated good to excellent compared to 78 percent two weeks ago. Thirty-seven percent of the state’s corn is silking, which is five days behind last year and two days behind the five-year average, according to the report.

“We are seeing some stress to both crops and livestock from the ongoing hot and dry weather. South central and southeast Iowa are currently the driest parts of the state, with more than 85 percent of topsoil rated short or very short of moisture in those areas,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in a statement.

Portions of northeast, north central, east central and southeast Iowa are the best off as far as moisture. Some areas sustained damage from hail recently. Crops near Klemme were pulverized.

ISA Board member April Hemmes provided Chinese buyers an update last week on how soybeans they may import look in the field. Processors signed contracts to buy 460.3 million bushels of soybeans from the United States valued at more than $5 billion during a ceremony in Des Moines.

It was the second-largest one-time purchase, according to U.S. Soybean Export Council officials. The deal amounted to roughly 80 percent of Iowa’s record production last year or about half of what the nation typically imports from the U.S.

Hemmes, who farms near Hampton, said soybeans were planted on time and look good in her area.

“I’m in a sweet spot because there isn’t a drought,” she said. “The beans are a little shorter this year but that doesn’t mean low yields.”

Drainage water management can mitigate drought issues

Agricultural drainage tile not only whisks away excess water but can hold it back during dry periods.

“If you manage water resources better, you can increase yield on land you own or may rent and increase your income,” said Paul Sweeney, director of conservation director of conservation planning with Ecosystem Services Exchange (ESE), at Peoples Company 10th Annual Land Investment Expo held earlier this year.

Studies show 27 percent and 29 percent of corn and soybean losses, respectively, are due to drought.

Adding drainage control structures to hold back water during dry times can provide more consistency to crops. A 10 percent bump in yields is possible, Sweeney said. Control structures can be automated or operated manually.

Peoples Company President Steve Bruere said controlled water management systems are the future in how farmland will be managed.

“When you look at data in what causes crop failure, it’s usually too much or not enough water,” Bruere said. “If you can manage that process, we think that will improve yields, rents and asset value.”

Sub-irrigation, or pumping water into tile lines when needed, is another way to increase productivity, according to Sweeney. The practice boosts yields by as much as 35 percent, he said.

Existing drainage systems can be retrofitted for sub-irrigation, but starting from scratch is the best, Sweeney said.

He estimates conventional drainage systems cost about $800 per acre to install. Add about $225 for drainage control structures. A fully automated structure costs $2,000 to $5,000, he said.

Sub-irrigation can run about $1,700 per acre, according to Sweeney. He estimates the return on investment for a sub-irrigation system is 5-8 years for a corn-soybean rotation.

Pond and reservoir storage

Iowa averages 32-34 inches of rain a year and it only takes 25 inches spread throughout the growing season to produce a bumper crop, agronomy experts say.

That’s why relatively few Iowa farms supplement Mother Nature. The latest U.S. Census of Agriculture indicates 1,525 farms have some form of irrigation covering 171,656 acres. Data shows Iowa has 87,000 farms and 30.5 million crop acres.

Chris Hay, Ph. D., ISA senior environmental scientist, said storing drainage water in a pond or reservoir, called drainage water recycling, is helpful when rain is scarce. Drain water is captured then pumped back into the field — either with a center pivot or through the existing drainage pipes.

“Drainage water recycling increases yields from the irrigation benefit, and the nitrate in the drainage water is recycled,” Hay said. “Although the practice is attractive, its use can be limited by topographic requirements, the availability and cost of a storage reservoir and unknown economic returns.”

Studies show soybean yields under drainage water recycling averaged 12 bushel-per-acre more than the undrained control. Corn yields showed an even greater yield response.

The ISA is working with researchers and other partners to evaluate the potential of this practice in Iowa.

Michelle Jones, ISA environmental communications specialist, contributed to this report.

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For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at aputze@iasoybeans.com.

©2017 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.

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March 2017 Contact Ann Clinton for past publications.