Will We Ever have Another Drought?

I did it. I am daring the Masters of the Universe. Blame me when the rivers and wells go dry, vegetation turns to tinder, and the ensuing Dust Bowl envelops the Corn Belt.

But do not hold your breath waiting.

Look up the Iowa Annual Weather Summary for the years 2013-17. State Climatologist Harry Hilaker compiles temperature and precipitation records for each county. Based on his data,  Mitchell and Howard Counties averaged 7″ more precipitation than normal for this five year period.  2017 was the driest year with rainfall matching the long term average of 35.”  2016 was the wettest with 17.5″ above normal or 52.5″.

As weather calamities go, drought has the celebrity. It is the 13% possibility of a drought in any given year that causes the typical growing season rally. I am always puzzled at farmers and traders willingness to bet on an event with such low probability.

The reality is more damaged is caused by too much rain. National yields are highest following growing seasons with abundant rainfall. However, here in North Iowa, it is the chronic and persistent impacts of erosion, nutrient loss, and reduced yield from excess moisture that collectively do the most harm.

Not one to play the “hapless victim card”, I look at these trends and ask, what can we do to mitigate the effects of too much water, preserve the soil, and achieve yields needed to stay profitable?

Quite a bit, actually.

If there was ever a question regarding the value of 40′ lateral tile spacing, in our minds, this debate is over. Compared to farms with 80′ spacing, we are seeing a 5-10% yield advantage, depending on the soils. Additionally, the improved speed with which the soil recovers has operational benefits allowing us to get back in the field sooner after heavy rainfall events.

With a few exceptions, we have stopped applying NH3 in the fall. Instead we are split applying urea either just before planting or immediately after planting, and again pre tassel or late June. We observed that with more rain and warmer weather, ammonia was being leached from the soil and was not available when the plant needed it. For many years the practice of applying nitrogen as ammonia in the fall worked well. This was our preferred method. No longer.

For corn fields going to beans the next season, we now use a vertical tillage tool in the fall followed by a soil finisher in the spring for seedbed preparation. Our experience with no till in our heavy, wet soils led us to conclude tillage was needed to get the best yields. The vertical till/soil finisher systems achieves nearly identical residue cover and erosion reduction with out the weed control, compaction, and trash management challenges that come with no till.

Every year we install more waterways, surface water diversions, headland berms, and other structures to slow down and reduce the flow of surface water on our farms. By experimenting with different structure designs over the years, we have developed an assortment of strategies for minimizing surface water damage. In situations where the frequency and volume of surface water has reached a level requiring intervention, we can usually come up with a cost effective solution that handles the water and maintains the farmability of the land.

These are a few examples of how we are adapting to the changing climate. We expect recent rainfall patterns to continue so we are making the necessary land improvements and system adjustments to maintain our farms productivity.

Speaking of rain, it looks like the most recent two week wet spell has run its course. We are close to one third done with harvest. Combine, tillage, and fertilizer operations should all be running by the weekend.

The Team has performed very well so far. No major mental errors or bad luck. The Honey Crisp apples in our carefully assembled sack lunches have been a treat!

Only six weeks till Thanksgiving. We might be having our turkey dinner in the field.

Would you like a side of bee’s wings with your dressing Ben?


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