By Brooks Taylor, Mt. Pleasant News
Extension Service Area Crop Specialist Virgil Schmitt recalls a conversation he had last fall with a man, who farms near Salem.
?The farmer told me he had only received an inch-and-a-half of rain from late May to early August and when he saw his corn yields he wondered where all this came from,? Schmitt reflected.
When expectations are low, they often are exceeded and that was the case with the 2017 corn crop in southeast Iowa.
Although official numbers will not be released until late February or early March, Schmitt said yield reports he has received from the county range upward to the upper 190s and lower 200s bushels per acre.
?All in all, most farmers were very pleased with their yields,? Schmitt remarked. ?They were surprised how good the yields were despite the dry weather.?
The area economist points at two factors ? improved corn seed genetics and better management of the water in the soil ? as the keys in crops being able to withstand dry conditions.
?Genetics have come a long way,? he began. ?The genetics we have today would have done a lot better in the 1988 drought. If we had today?s genetics back then, the drought would not have had such a devastating crop loss.?
Turning to water management, Schmitt said a plant?s roots only go as far down as the water table. ?If you have a high water table, the roots won?t go very deep. Today, farmers are doing more tilling and lowering the water table, so roots dig deeper into the soil to get moisture,? he explained. ?Farmers have done a better job with drainage and consequently, plants are getting better rooting.?
He said soil can hold 12 inches of water in the top five feet and a farmer can get a good crop with 20 inches of water. ?Normally, you think that rooting will go down into the soil five feet, but in 2017, it went much farther. In northwest Iowa, they had roots going nine feet deep. We needed that to get the yields we got.?
However, yields in southeast Iowa pale in comparison to yields in other parts of the state, Schmitt added. Preliminary figures had average yields in southeast Iowa at an average of 166 bushels an acre, the second lowest in the state. South-central Iowa had the dubious distinction of bringing up the rear at 163 bushels per acre. Meanwhile, central Iowa (Des Moines and Ames area) was at 204 bushels per acre and east-central Iowa (Scott and Muscatine counties, etc.) led the state with 207 bushels per acre.
The lack of rain in June and July was the top factor hindering yields as storms and insect problems were at a minimum, Schmitt noted.
Looking ahead to 2018, Schmitt said early indications favor another good crop. The recent cold snap will have a negative impact on any insect larva such as grubs and Japanese beetles trying to survive in the soil, Schmitt stated.
He added that nearly all the moisture received since October sunk into the ground and very little runoff was reported.
?Soil can hold two inches of water per foot,? Schmitt pointed out. ?I?ve talked to a few people who have tile lines running, which means the soil is holding all the water it can.?
About the only negative facing corn producers, and it is a huge red mark, is prices. ?There isn?t much hope that prices will get any better at this point,? Schmitt remarked. ?That is really a disadvantage because you can have a good crop and still be in financial distress.?
He estimated that about 20 percent of Iowa farmers are facing financial stress.
Looking ahead to the 2018 crop season, Schmitt said that despite average soil moisture last fall and thus far this winter, ?I think things are in place for a good start to 2018.?