Extension agronomist sees silver linings for soybean crop in spite of drought
By BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
Virgil Schmitt tends to be an optimist.
Maybe he has to be because he deals daily with a number of people who tend to be less optimistic.
Whatever the case, Schmitt said this year’s soybean harvest may not be all doom and gloom.
No measurable rain in the area for over 40 days (the area received about a tenth of an inch of rain Sept. 11, the first rainfall since July) naturally has area farmers worried. Mt. Pleasant was one of only four locations in Iowa (Burlington, Keokuk and Ft. Madison were the others) without any precipitation during a hot July.
Thus far, September, hasn’t brought any relief from the heat — or moisture.
“There is nothing I can really do, except a rain dance. I tried that once and it didn’t work,” quipped Schmitt as he was driving through the eastern Iowa countryside.
As the Iowa State University Extension area agronomist for most of eastern Iowa, Schmitt said that only about two of his counties — Delaware and Dubuque — are looking good from a crops standpoint.
“They received some of the rains in August and early September that the rest of the area didn’t,” he explained.
He said that as long as the dry weather persists, farmers are using one to one-and-one-half bushel yield a day.
“We’re looking at significant losses,’ he said bluntly.
That’s because most of the soybeans are now in the R5 or R6 stage when the plants are filling pods. “We really needed a good rain two to three weeks ago,” the agronomist said.
During his field tours, he has noticed a lot of pods with three beans, “but those beans are lacking in size. One might be fully grown but the other two are either small or shriveled up. The number of pods at each node also vary. When none of the pods are filling out, then when we are in trouble.”
Henry County’s average soybean yield over the past 10 years (2003-12) is 49 bushels per acre, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The highest yield during the past 10 years was in 2004 at 54 bushels an acre. A year earlier (2003), the county experienced its poorest yield during the decade of 36 bushels per acre. Average soybean yield in southeast Iowa over that 10-year period was 47 bushels per acre.
It has been a difficult crop year for farmers. Although the area has been spared hail and wind, a prolonged wet spring delayed harvest, which Schmitt said turned out to be a hindrance this year.
“You can get better yields with early planting. While the crops mature about the same time, regardless of when they are planted, they have less growing days when planted later. For soybeans, that means fewer nodes.”
One of the silver linings is that soybean plants operate differently than corn. When corn plants reach maturity, the plant basically shuts down. Conversely, roots of soybean plants continue to grow, seeking moisture. “The good news is that there was sufficient subsoil moisture to get the plants off to a good start and the roots followed the moisture down,” he said.
Genetic advancements, Schmitt said, also have enabled plants to withstand stress and drought much better. “There is a lot of difference between today’s plant and plants of 20-30 years ago.”
If current conditions continue, Schmitt said it could be an early harvest. He said he talked last week with a farmer near Fulton, Ill., who had already harvest part of his corn crop. The farmer said the crop was planted in sand and yielded 150 bushels an acre.
“Some of the soybean fields I am passing,” Schmitt said as he continued his travel across eastern Iowa, look like they could be harvested next week. I think harvest will be all over the place but possibly earlier than normal.”
Unlike last year when the entire Midwest was drought-stricken, crops in some states in the breadbasket are booming. “I talked to some of my counterparts recently in Ohio and Indiana and they said they have never seen such good crops,” Schmitt related.
That news, undoubtedly will not be favorable to Iowa farmers. Markets are driven by supply, and Schmitt said the markets already are down.
“The markets are not treating us very well,” he observed. “There may be a bounce right before harvest or right at harvest. Markets tend to respond to yield reports. The first few weeks of harvest will tell us a lot about the markets.”
If he were a betting man, he would put his money on lower yields this year. “We were surprised last year by the yields, but this year’s yields probably won’t be as good as last year’s.
“That being said,” he concluded, “a lot of people might be pleasantly surprised. The yields may be better than they think.”