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Iowa's Harvest And Cover Crop Planting Behind

Michael Leland/IPR
Soybean harvesting Saturday in Hamilton County. The USDA says Iowa's soybean harvest is only about one-third complete.

With billions of dollars’ worth of corn and soybeans still in the fields, Iowa farmers are using sunny, dry days to catch up.

Nights too.

But Monday’s U.S. Department of Agriculture weekly update says the soybean harvest, which is now just over a third complete, is the smallest percentage harvested at this stage of the season since 1985.   Although farmers are reporting deteriorating quality, the USDA rates 65 percent of Iowa’s soybean crop in good to excellent condition.

A little more than two-thirds of Iowa’s corn acreage gets the good-to-excellent rating, and 29 percent is harvested.   That’s four-days behind the five-year average for late October.

Meanwhile, this fall’s wet weather is also delaying cover crop planting for many Iowa farmers. Conservationists say producers need to get the seed in the ground soon to see the full benefits for soil health and water quality.

Mahaska County Farmer Michael Jackson is two weeks behind schedule on planting his cereal rye.

“We usually strive to be done with corn by Halloween. And with a little bit of luck we’ll be done with soybeans by Halloween,” Jackson said.

But for Jackson, slowing erosion and insulating waterways from runoff is worth the extra effort required in planting cover crops.

“So we do have quite a few terraces, quite a few grassy waterways, and you…that really shows up right there,” he said.  “Because you’re not out there every winter cleaning those waterways out or cleaning a terrace out.”

Research shows cover crops can keep soil and nutrients on the land and out of waterways. But many Iowa farmers don’t plant them, citing added costs. 

Conservationist Alan Lange with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service worries the late harvest may be one more discouraging factor.

“That is a possibility," Lange said. "In a season of late harvest, cover crop just makes another management requirement for a farmer. So it’s something else that they have to try to manage this time of year that’s so busy.”

Less than 3 percent of Iowa’s farmland has cover crops.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter