Flood levee and field repair

The Missouri River rose in March, breaching levees and causing massive flooding. Some farmers were still able to plant, others took prevent plant for 2019 and are now looking to repair fields that sat under water for months.

A house that has been in Bob Dashner’s family since 1853 is getting demolished. While it hurts, he knows it is just one of the many casualties claimed by the flooding in southwest Iowa this past year.

Levees broke along the Missouri River this spring, and farmers in the region dealt with record flooding that caused extensive damage across the area. After a year marked with limited planting in the fields and a lot of clean up, the new year brings hopes of a new start.

Dashner, who farms near Pacific Junction, Iowa, said he hoped to get all his ground disced and trash picked up going into the new year, but he hasn’t been able to hit a few of his acres due to standing water and the start of winter.

“We had tires, we had boat docks, we had parts of campers. Just everything you could think of everywhere,” he said. “We have quite a bit of work still ahead of us to even disc it.”

But that hasn’t stopped him from being happy with some of the success he has been able to have.

“Most of our debris on the things we farm, we got picked up,” Dashner said. “We got a lot of cover crop planted, just trying to get something growing on it and keep the weeds off of it. It came up well, so we are happy with that.”

David Lueth, who farms in Fremont County, Iowa, said he has been trying to work on his fields, but as mid-December hits, it is getting tough to get the discs out due to the frozen ground. With the river finally below flood stage, this is the time to get more work done, he said.

“We are losing a lot of the ponding we had that kept the ground wet, but it was so wet I can’t get in now because it’s frozen,” he said.

The major issues he sees with his fields are erosion next to the road, and rocks and dirt from the roads moving into the ground. He said that he has some pot holes, from 1 to 4 feet deep, which will require heavy equipment in the field to fix.

“It might be the area of a quarter of an acre to a full acre,” he said. “Then we have to start working on ditches and getting drainage back, which will take a couple of years.”

Despite these flooding struggles, Lueth said some of the problems he is dealing with date back to the heavy, constant rains that delayed harvest last fall.

“This is the best my farm has looked in a year with what I have disced,” he said.

Worth the work

The damage and debris is still a major issue, according to Aaron Saeugling, Iowa State Extension field agronomist based in Lewis, Iowa, and a lot of farmers have been wondering if some of the work is worth the money.

“A lot of these producers have been living with this every day,” Saeugling said. “Emotionally, this is hard. We have somewhere north of 300 farms that were 100% prevent plant. That’s 300 operations that harvested zero bushels.”

The farms that went prevent plant should be in better shape for 2020, Saeugling said. He warned against some fall input costs, as there is a chance for additional flooding next year, and the major work that should be done on these fields is simple repair and making sure drainage is intact for anything weather could throw at them next year.

Lueth said he took nearly 600 acres of prevent plant this year, so he was able to get some field work and repairs done over the summer to get a jump on fall work. He said he was able to disc some of his ground twice throughout the season in an effort to suppress weeds.

With the work he has been able to get done on those 600 acres, he expects to be able to plant at least 90% of the ground next year.

Dashner said that losing money on rented ground hurt after being forced into a lot of prevent plant this year, but he hopes to be able to get as much planted as possible next year, if only for insurance purposes.

“If we get a crop in the ground, you are putting inputs in, but it will be covered better than it would by taking prevent plant. We are hopeful, but it’s hard to tell what Mother Nature will do,” he said.

As Lueth moves on to 2020, he thought back to some of the advice he received from his father-in-law as he took over the river bottom farm: “Weather is going to be an issue.”

“You are going to lose most of your grain to wet weather, whether it be from the sky or the river,” he said. “My farm plans and management is to not do any fall applying of fertilizers, because you don’t know if you’ll change field plans. In farming, you don’t get to see two seasons that are the same.”

Levee repairs slow

Dashner said he is ready to move forward with work in 2020, but there are still some issues that are concerning. The extensive damage makes him less optimistic for how the upcoming spring season will go.

“We still have levees that aren’t fixed,” he said. “We’ve had the major breaches fixed, but we still have a mile and a half of levees that if it floods anywhere close to half of what it did this year, we are going to have flooding again.”

All along the Missouri River, Saeugling said there are a lot of holes left to plug in the system, and the Army Corps of Engineers is behind where they’d like to be.

Weather-wise, to help ease the load on the levees, Saeugling said farmers in the area will be hoping for below-normal precipitation in the upper Midwest to prevent more outflow from the north.

“What would be nice is very little to no snowfall in the Dakotas and Montana in particular,” he said. “Then below normal precipitation in the spring. What has to happen is they have to draw down those reservoirs, and that takes time.”

Dashner said the biggest issue facing the levee repairs is money, as it may take “millions of dollars” to get all necessary tasks completed. He said the levee district typically operates on a budget of $10,000 per year for routine cleaning and maintenance.

“To fix it up where it needs to be, they are talking $35 million,” he said. “They wanted us as a river levee district to come up with 10% of that. That’s $3.5 million, and there’s no way we can get that much money, even over decades.”

He said they may turn to the state of Iowa to help with that portion of the money, but the state may not have it.

“They say when a hurricane happens, it takes two or three years to get your money,” he said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t take that long to get a river levee fixed.”

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