Driving across Iowa this spring and summer, it might’ve look liked the highway was passing through different states.
Iowa saw a range of weather conditions, from drought in the southern tier to excessive rain, and it might only take an hour in each direction to see a difference.
Joshua Michel, an Iowa State Extension agronomist who works in the southeast and south central counties, including Wapello and Davis, said his region was hit hard by drought this year. Chariton, a town in Lucas County, Iowa, was one of the driest in the state, reaching just 62 percent of its normal rainfall when early September arrived.
However, when it came time to get the crop out of the ground, farmers simply couldn’t stop the rain.
“We’ve had continual drought down in that area for going on two years in some places,” Michel said. “This fall, unfortunately, we weren’t able to turn the faucet off now. It’s created quite a mess for some guys. After dealing with a lack of moisture for quite a while, and then this fall when it came time for harvest, we got all the rain we needed but didn’t want.”
Michel said harvest had been delayed so much in his region that around Dec. 17 he recalled seeing three combines out in the field.
While the drought lowered yield expectations to lower, he said in the end farmers brought in better-than-expected crops. There were a few timely rains that fell in August that pushed the crops just enough.
With such a wet end to the season, Michel said the concerns for farmers have turned from enduring a drought to making sure things are dry enough come spring.
“This could be an interesting spring considering we have adequate soil moisture in the ground,” Michel said. “This is the year we could be having drought meetings in the county, then later on have flood meetings. If there are extra rains this spring, we could be washed out.”
Up in north central Iowa, dryness wasn’t an issue. In fact, many farmers were looking for ways to avoid being washed out with all the rain that fell during the 2018 growing season.
Iowa State Extension agronomist Angie Rieck-Hinz said in her coverage area, cities like Mason City and Clarion received rainfall almost 20 to 30 inches above normal this year. Nearby Waterloo had a near-record year, going over their normal amount by 53 percent.
It paints a wet picture.
“All of my counties averaged 10 to nearly 30 inches above average,” Rieck-Hinz said.
And when it came time for harvest, they also saw delays from the continuous rains that hit Iowa.
“It looked like we were going to be on track for an early start to harvest,” she said. “Then it just started raining. What I’ve seen is it’s the latest harvest on record for soybeans in north central Iowa.”
She said yields in her area were variable depending on how the farms handled the excess rain, with soybean yields anywhere from 40 to 80 bushels per acre, and corn ranging from 140 to 200 or 210 bushels per acre.
One of the major issues farmers faced was running machinery through wet fields, with Stuart Swanson, who farms just south of Clarion, saying it was a year-round issue.
“We had that not only this fall, but in the spring. We had areas where we tried to do tillage and planting and we left ruts that didn’t grow a crop,” he said. “There were lots of spaces where I said ‘I’ll never do that again, I’ll try to be more patient,’ then we got to fall and did the same things and made it worse with the combines.”
Coming off a wet season, fieldwork was difficult at the end of the year, Swanson said, and that has caused some concern heading into next spring.
“There’s some frustration because of the moisture level and how fast things froze up. Because the soil was wet, we weren’t able to get the normal fertilizer applications done,” he said. “Nitrogen application might take a week or 10 days, so we’ve added that on the backside of our spring planting already.”
He added that Wright County wasn’t the only place dealing with that issue, and there is very limited application that was done anywhere in the state. There are concerns about supply issues for next spring, he said.
With the north being too wet, and the south pretty dry, the middle of Iowa seemed to be the place to be.
“We were dry early and got planted in good shape, unlike a lot of people,” said Robb Ewoldt, who farms near Blue Grass in east central Iowa. “We really had ideal planting and then we got some rain. Anytime we did get dry, it only stayed dry for two weeks and made the roots grow down and made our corn crop a lot better. The weather was ideal for the corn crop in our area.”
His region saw relatively normal rainfall totals heading into the harvest season, finishing a little above normal for the year — around 20 percent depending on the location measured.
He said a dry August hurt some of his crop, but his only major complaint was the delay in getting his cover crops on due to the late harvest.
“We seemed to be in the sweet spot,” Ewoldt said. “From what our corn yields show us, we were right in the sweet spot. … I can complain about the prices and the cost of input, but I can’t complain about our yields.”