Sustainability

Ground Work 2021: Iowa Weather Compressing Growing Season, Yield

Our crops look like they put up a good fight this year, but they have reached the point of shutting down biological processes for the season. Hot, dry weather dominated August, pushing soybeans and corn to maturity faster than we would have liked. And that will hurt yields.

We did finally get 2.5 cm, or 1 inch, of rain the last full week of August. While we hope that moisture will help the soybeans fill out more and add some weight to the corn kernels, it will likely be too late to prevent below-average yields in our region of the U.S. Midwest. The roots of our crops have grown as deep as they can, and the soil is so dry that most of that moisture will be held at the surface of the soil.

Our soybeans are just starting to yellow, signaling that they will soon stop filling pods and start drying up. In early August, we did apply fungicide to some of our soybean fields that we also treated with another application of herbicide to control escaped weeds. The goal was to protect those plants and give them as much of a chance as possible under highly stressful conditions, but we won’t know if that helped until we harvest the crop in a month or so.

However, I know the soybean crop is better in other parts of the Midwest and the entire U.S. I don’t anticipate an overall short crop, even though that’s what we will experience locally. The U.S. will continue to provide a reliable supply of soy, despite the variation in conditions across the country. I learned more about the demand for our crop while attending the U.S. Soy Global Trade Exchange. I enjoyed the quality of speakers and conversations with soybean customers.

Our corn is starting to fire, or turn brown, at the base of the stalk because of the hot, dry weather. That drying is moving up the plant, indicating that it will also stop filling grain.

Although this has been a challenging season, we can see that our farming practices, like using no-till and cover crops, helped our soils hold more moisture. The crops actually look good, given the high stress they’ve experienced. We hope the benefits of those practices will translate to yield.

Although the late August rain may not benefit the crops as much as we would like, it did allow us to start seeding cover crops into our standing crops. We started planting cover crops in our corn fields the last few days of August. We use the tall machine with narrow tires that sits above the corn crop to seed cover crops into standing crops. Long tubes hang between the corn rows and spread a cover crop mix evenly into the crop. We start planting in our fields to make sure our equipment is working well, and then we custom-plant cover crops for many other farmers in the area. We will likely be planting cover crops throughout most of September.

We plant cover crops into corn first. Hopefully the recent rain will help the cover crops germinate and start growing soon. We aim to seed cover crops into soybeans after leaves turn yellow, but right before they start dropping off the plants. The leaves cover the seed, holding in moisture and allowing them to germinate more quickly.

We adjust the mix of cover crop seed for each field. We often plant rye into a cornfield that will grow soybeans next season, because we have a larger window to terminate the cover crop before planting soybeans. We usually plant oats into soybeans because they succumb to winter kill, making it easier to plant corn into the field the next season. We sometimes add a brassica like turnips or rapeseed and a legume like hairy vetch to get the most benefit from the cover crops, though we adapt the mix based on seed cost, soil type and other factors.

Ideally, the grasses in the mix — rye or oats — will grow to about 15 cm, or 6 inches, by harvest. Having something green growing in the fields keeps our soil working well under the surface by keeping soil microbes healthy and nutrient cycles going. For crop farmers, most of the work is done in the soil profile, and cover crops help maintain and encourage that environment.

We are also emptying our pig barns. As the pigs reach 127 to 140 kg, or 280 to 310 pounds, they are ready to be shipped to packing plants. By mid-September, our barns will be empty. We will clean and disinfect them to be ready to receive a new group of young pigs that weigh about 18 kg, or 40 pounds. We will be getting them settled in the barns just about when harvest starts.

My son Schyler’s Scottish Highland cattle are looking good. The calves are growing quickly, including the youngest one born in late July. These calves start eating grasses and hay at a younger age than many breeds of beef cattle. We continue to feed them hay, but we expect that the late-August rain will generate more growth in the pasture, so that they will have both fresh grass and hay in their diet in the few weeks.

With the growing season compressed, we are still guessing how our 2021 crop will do. We won’t really be able to evaluate the year until harvest. In the meantime, we know we’ve done the best we can to give our crops and livestock the best chance to do well under stress. As our focus turns to cover crops, we are also doing our best to set the 2022 crop up for success.

This field update is funded by the soybean checkoff. To share or republish part or all of this Ground Work 2021 article, please link to the original article and credit www.USSOY.org.

Tim Bardole

Tim Bardole is a fifth-generation farmer from Rippey, Iowa. He farms with his father, Roy; his brother, Pete; and his son, Schyler. Together, they grow soybeans and corn and raise grower-to-finish hogs. He serves as a United Soybean Board director and is also on the Iowa Soybean Board. He’s interested in sustainability and ensuring product quality for customers. Tim and his wife Lori have three children: Cassandra, Schyler who is married to Lauren, and Gabe. They also have two young grandsons.