In light of drought, yields better than expected

The 2017 growing season was a challenging one thanks to a drought that lasted much of the summer.

That said, it could have been worse. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Field Agronomist Rebecca Vittetoe said her conversations with area farmers revealed that the doom and gloom they feared did not come to pass.

?The yields were down but definitely better than expected,? she said.

The 2016 yield broke records. The 2017 yield was not quite as good, but still filled the bins.

The United States Department of Agriculture issued a yield estimate in November of 197 bushels per acre of corn in Iowa. The southeast district, which includes Jefferson and Van Buren counties, posted a yield of 166 bushels per acre. The most productive part of the state was the northeast district, expected to yield 213 bushels per acre.

USDA estimated the soybean yield in the state at 56 bushels per acre, and 48 bushels per acre in the southeast district.


Cool August

Vittetoe said that, while the drought no doubt hampered yields, other factors during the year helped them. She mentioned the lower than average temperatures in August gave corn plants more time to fill out their ears, and for soybean plants to flesh out their pods.

?The temperature was probably three to four degrees cooler than normal,? Vittetoe said. ?That really saved the crops. If we had had a typical hot August, it could have been really bad.?

One advantage of the drought was that it did not give foliar diseases the moisture they need to grow. Vittetoe saw a little bit of ear rot and stock rot, but the incidence of both of those was below average. ?I didn?t hear from farmers who were telling me their corn was falling over, or their loads were being rejected at the elevator because of ear rot,? she said. ?The cool weather in August helped that, too, especially for ear rot.?

The one pest that made its presence known was the spidermite, which is more prevalent in dry conditions. Vittetoe said they affected soybean yields more than corn.

?In some cases, spidermites affected soybean yields if they were not treated in a timely fashion,? she said. ?In corn, by the time they show up, I wouldn?t recommend spraying for them.?


Still in drought

Vittetoe said the USDA still classifies Jefferson County as being in a ?moderate drought? even now in the middle of winter. Soil moisture doesn?t change much over the winter because the ground is frozen and can?t absorb water even if it rains.

?Rain is helpful in the fall before the ground freezes,? Vittetoe said. ?Right now, the best thing for us would be to get snow, because it will melt later when the ground can absorb it.?

But moisture level of the winter doesn?t matter as much as other factors in determining yields. Sotirios Archontoulis, assistant professor of integrated cropping systems at Iowa State University, found that when corn is planted plays a much larger role in determining yields than the amount of moisture in the ground in January. The longer in the year a farmer has to wait to plant, the worse are their yields, Archontoulis found.


Ag economics

Charles Brown, ISU Extension and Outreach field specialist, said that yields have been good lately, but commodity prices have not. Since reaching a historic high in 2013, they?ve fallen every year since. Prices are down because farmers are producing so much, and until supply falls below demand, they?ll continue to be low.

Brown said the country enjoyed three bumper years in a row on corn and beans, including the record-breaking year of 2016. He doesn?t expect yields to remain so high indefinitely, and when they come back down to earth, prices will rise.

?I think the prices have bottomed out, actually,? Brown said. ?We?re probably stuck somewhere in the $3.50 to $4 per bushel for corn for awhile.?

Brown farms near Ottumwa, and he realizes yields were down in this part of Iowa, but the state did well as a whole. Some states had even better yields in 2017 than they did in 2016.

One piece of good news for farmers is that the price of inputs is expected to drop. Brown thinks they?ll fall about 2 percent this year.

?Fertilizer has come down the most from where it was three or four years ago,? he said. ?Cash rents have dropped probably 15 percent off their highs. They will have to come down more, because we can?t sustain these high cash rents.?

Brown mentioned that farmers must pay attention to the world economy to be able to predict price changes to corn and beans. For instance, commodity prices have risen slightly in response to dry conditions in Argentina, which is not expected to yield as well this year.


How long to wait

Something else that affects prices is how long farmers hold onto their grain.

?A lot of grain was put into storage from the 2017 crop, and some is still there from the 2016 crop,? he said. ?If the corn is in good condition, dry and is aerated, it can keep for two or three years. The longer you keep it, the closer you have to watch it because it can get moldy or suffer insect damage.?

Brown said most farmers can?t afford to wait years at a time to sell their grain because they need cash on hand.

?For farmers who are paying cash rents, they?ve typically got about nine months before they have to sell it,? he said. ?But if their land is bought and paid for, they can wait a few years.?