Crops behind schedule, but in good shape
Spring planting for the year is a little behind schedule, but better than it was a year ago at this time.
Iowa State University Extension farm management specialist Charles Brown said 33 percent of the corn crop is normally planted by this date, according to the state’s five-year average. This year, that figure is 15 percent.
Field agronomist Virgil Schmitt, also from ISU Extension, said it’s too early to start worrying about getting the crops in the ground. The old rule of thumb was that corn needed to be planted by May 8, and that a farmer would lose 1 percent of his yield per day for every day he waited to plant after that.
New data suggest farmers have more time to plant without losing yield than previously thought. Schmitt said a farmer can expect 95-100 percent of an average yield if he plants by May 13. For the first 10 days after that, yield declines about 0.5 percent per day.
“We have a longer window in which to plant than we thought we did,” Schmitt said. “And if we don’t catch that window, yields don’t drop as sharply as we feared, either. There’s no need for people to be panicking now.”
If the weather is bad in the next three weeks and farmers still haven’t planted corn, Schmitt recommends switching to a seed that matures earlier, in a shorter growing season.
The area has received steady rain for the past week during which it has rained nearly every day. Nevertheless, Brown said the fields are not in danger of flooding or of drowning the seeds that have been planted. He said southeast Iowa began the planting season exceptionally dry. He said the area received practically no rain after July 1 last year, and this led to a precipitous drop in subsoil moisture. Furthermore, the farmers who worry about flooding are the ones whose land is near a large river. He said farmers in Jefferson County don’t have that problem because the county has no significant bodies of water.
“Our biggest problem now will be the temperature,” he said. “Corn needs 50 degrees or above to germinate. Soil temperatures were there for awhile but now they’re back in the 40s. We need warmer temperatures for the seeds to germinate properly.”
Schmitt said some parts of Iowa have been inundated with rain, and farmers in those areas are beginning to worry about yield loss.
“My comrades in northeast Iowa can’t do anything,” Schmitt said. “It’s just too wet. If they don’t get their corn seeds planted [this week], then their corn yields will go down, and they’re beginning to expect that.”
This past winter was harsh, which might be a good thing for farmers. Brown said long, cold winters help farmers in at least two ways. First of all, deep freezes kill insects that overwinter in corn and soybean stubble. This is especially true if there is no snow on the ground to insulate the bugs.
The second reason harsh winters are good for farmers is that they cause the soil to freeze and later thaw. This process of heaving breaks up the soil and allows roots to grow deeper, reaching subsoil moisture many feet below the surface.
“Some crops last year had roots as deep as 8 feet,” Brown said. “They were trying to go down to get the moisture. If the soil is heavily compacted, those roots might only grow to 3-4 feet.”
Brown said some farmers might plant more soybeans this year instead of corn because the price of soybeans has stayed fairly high while the price of corn has fallen in the past year. When he looked this morning, corn was selling at $5 per bushel on the futures market while soybeans were selling at $14.62 per bushel.
“Farmers had begun to plant more corn acres, but this year we could see them switch back to soybeans because of the price and because the inputs for corn are higher,” Brown said.
That said, Brown expects most farmers to continue with their traditional rotation between corn and beans. Other crops, such as wheat and oats, have become rare as of late because of the profitability of corn and beans. He said even farmers in the Dakotas, which have traditionally grown mostly wheat, are adding more acres of Iowa’s two staple crops. The same thing is happening in Kansas. However, he noted that corn takes a lot of water and is thus susceptible to drought in a way wheat is not. If farmers in those plains states foresee a drought, they’ll likely opt for wheat, he said.
“Considering all the cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys we raise in Iowa, we’re going to be a corn and soybean producing state,” Brown said, referring to the need to procure feed for the livestock.