With little prospect of relief, Iowa drought spreads at critical time for corn, soybeans

Source: By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register • Posted: Monday, September 5, 2022

With temperatures pushing close to 100 degrees this week, Steve Rehder says what’s on many farmers’ minds: “We need rain.”

Rehder and other farmers in northwest Iowa, southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska are experiencing extreme drought, catching just a few tenths of an inch in sporadic storms through July and early August.

Nearly 31% of Iowa is experiencing moderate to extreme drought, the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor showed Thursday, with drought expanding across 20 southern and central Iowa counties, including most of the Des Moines metro. A week ago, just 17% of the state was experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions.

“We have had a bit of a reprieve last week with some more moderate temperatures,” said Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub in Ames. “But the heat is coming back this week, and it looks very likely the lack of precipitation is really going to be a problem. Drought is going to increase almost assuredly over the next couple of weeks.”

Northwest Iowa rainfall is significantly below normal. For example, Sioux City is 9.27 inches below normal since the beginning of the year, said Jeff Chapman, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which tracks weather conditions in western Iowa.

In nearby Vermillion, South Dakota, the year’s rain so far is 8.95 inches. Both figures are half or less of the normal amount.

The drought has been deepening. Rain in Sioux City was 4.69 inches below normal in June and July, typically the area’s wettest months, Chapman said.

The heat and lack of rain comes at a critical time for crops: Corn needs moisture to fill out kernels, and soybeans need it to blossom, the determining factor in the number of pods the plants produce.

Curled leaves, cracked ground: Moisture in extremely short supply

Before this week’s punishing heat, 76% of Iowa’s corn was considered in good or excellent condition, the most recent USDA crop report showed.

But the plants are showing heat and drought stress: Corn leaves are curling and soybean leaves are flipping over, an attempt by the plants to reduce moisture loss, Iowa State University Extension agronomists say.

Cracks are deepening in northwest Iowa fields, said ISU agronomist Gentry Sorenson. In parts of the region, 69% of topsoil is short or very short of moisture, the crop report shows. In parts of southern Iowa, the figure is 74%.

Rehder, whose farm lies north of Hawarden in northwest Iowa, about halfway between Sioux City and Sioux Falls, said that with brittle pastures limiting grazing, he’s been feeding his cattle from stored supplies for a couple of weeks,

There’s nothing out there,” said Rehder, who’s also expecting less yield from his alfalfa to feed cattle this winter.

He anticipates that without more rain, his corn yields will be lower, as well. A pop-up shower Wednesday barely settled the dust, he said.

“We won’t have those big yields” that area farmers saw last year, Rehder said.

In 2021, when conditions were similar, many farmers reported getting just-in-time rains in August that helped save their crops. Farmers in Sioux County, where Hawarden is located, saw record corn and soybean yields, hitting nearly 100-year record highs last year, USDA data shows.

But this year, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center’s 30- and 90-day outlooks call for continued dryness.

Todey said thunderstorms this week could bring rain to “a few lucky ones,” but the storms are unlikely to be widespread. “And even the places that get some rain, it won’t be enough to make things really good.”

“It may be enough to help them limp along, hopefully, till they get their next rain,” he said.

But time is running out, said ISU agronomist Joel DeJong, who works with farmers in northwest Iowa.

“We’ve got several weeks left, and we’re going to need some pretty good weather the whole time to have good yields,” said ISU agronomist Joel DeJong, who works with farmers in northwest Iowa.

“I think we’ve taken the top end off yields in the region already,” DeJong said.

Last week’s lower temperatures and scattered showers helped corn that was pollinating, DeJong said. But without more precipitation, plants could begin aborting kernels at the end of the cob, a process called tipping.

“It’s just one of the ways the plant tries to manage having limited water,” DeJong said.

Soybeans have more time to benefit from showers, Sorenson said.

Even if soybean plants stop blooming during the intense dry and hot conditions, they can restart with precipitation. “Yields could get better,” Sorenson said.

Drought threatens yields, yet crop prices fall

The potential economic consequences of the spreading drought are unclear.

Iowa grows more corn than any other state in the U.S. at 2.55 billion bushels last year. It also produces the second-largest soybean crop, at nearly 621.9 million bushels.

Typically, drought in Iowa and its Corn Belt neighbors would push grain prices higher, said Chad Hart, an ISU agricultural economist. But corn and soybean prices have been falling over the past couple of months.

Hart said traders are concerned that demand will decline.

“It’s concern about the general economy — our worries about a possible recession, our worries about the inflation we’ve seen over the past nine months. Those are weighing heavily on the market right now,” he said.

Even the controversy over U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is a factor, raising concerns that China —  the largest buyer of U.S. soybeans and among the top five buyers of its pork — will curb its purchase of U.S. farm goods.

Tit-for-tat trade sanctions between the U.S. and China caused tension between the two nations under President Donald Trump, who pushed Beijing to buy more U.S. products. And Pelosi’s trip, meant to support Taiwan’s continued independence from China, “puts another log on the fire,” Hart said.

But drought concerns could outweigh economic worries if timely rains don’t come, he said.

“We’re hoping and praying for them, but we don’t know if we’ll get them,” said Hart, adding crop insurance should help farmers with the financial hit, although it won’t cover all their losses.

In southern Iowa, where drought is growing, ISU agronomist Clarabell Probasco said conditions vary greatly: When the counties along the Missouri border get an inch or two of rain, the next tier of counties gets a tenth or two-tenths of an inch, she said.

And while pastures aren’t as tough as Rehder’s in northwest Iowa, Probasco said they are deteriorating. “Cattle have been on pastures for a couple months, so they’ve grubbed it down. And we haven’t gotten the rain to grow the grass back,” she said

Under an emergency order, the USDA said this week it would allow cattle producers in 12 northwest Iowa counties, including Sioux, to graze livestock on land that’s in the federal conservation reserve program.

Even with some rain Wednesday, farmers are praying for more, Probasco said. “It’s a sit-and-hope game at this point,” she said.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.