Midwest harvest takes a hit from damaging spring floods

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lingering effects from last spring’s flooding are taking a bite from Midwest harvests.

Agriculture Department statistics show several Midwestern states are well behind long-term averages for the progress of the corn harvest, and yields appear disappointing so far, said Jenny Rees, an educator with the Nebraska Extension.

Corn Belt states are seeing a mixed picture, with Nebraska just slightly off long-term averages and Iowa and Illinois lagging. And even in places where numbers appear encouraging — Nebraska has harvested 94% of soybeans — there’s a caveat: Severe flooding meant farmers planted fewer acres in the first place.

The latest weekly crop progress report from USDA said 60% of corn has been harvested in Nebraska, down from 62% a year ago and the long-term average of 69%.

Soybeans are better off. The 94% harvested in Nebraska matches the long-term average and is ahead of the 88% harvested by this time a year ago. Part of the reason is fewer acres planted than usual, Rees said.

“Overall, we’re grateful for the crops that were able to be planted and harvested,” she said. Yields could be off by 5% to 20%, depending on a farm’s location, Rees said.

The spring floods delayed or prevented planting on hundreds of thousands of acres in Midwestern states, including 417,000 acres in Nebraska alone, said Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen. In addition, recent wet weather and snow has further slowed harvest of corn and soybeans, critical feed for livestock, among other purposes.

Climate scientists say extreme weather events are to be expected as the planet warms.

“The volatile weather wasn’t just over in March,” Hansen said. “2019 has been like no other year I’ve seen.”

The floods, beginning in March along the Missouri River and its tributaries, came on top of other woes for farmers. Those include low commodity prices and lost overseas markets tied to the Trump administration’s trade battles, although the trade picture has improved for agriculture and the administration has paid out millions of dollars in aid to farmers to compensate.

Some farmers couldn’t plant corn until well into June. In those cases, farmers have been waiting for the crop to mature, which happens when the corn’s moisture level reaches about 15%, Hansen said.

With snow promised in some areas, though, farmers have rushed the harvest. In some places, early snow has flattened cornfields, posing a challenge for harvest, Rees said.

Hansen said he’ll be curious to see how yields hold up in places where farmers had to wait to plant, as well as where farmers picked corn early to beat the snow.

“I know there’s a lot of variability,” he said.

In Iowa, the nation’s top corn- and ethanol-producing state, the corn harvest stood at 43% as of Sunday, USDA said. That’s well behind the long-term average of 72% by this time. Illinois farmers had harvested 58% of corn, off from the long-term average of 88%.

Nationally, USDA said 96% of corn acreage had matured by Sunday, which is 4 points behind the five-year average. There were brighter spots in the latest report, as well. Cotton, sorghum and peanuts were all ahead of their five-year averages.