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Iowa Crops Mature Quickly, Quality Following Derecho Damage Remains A Big Question

The derecho knocked over standing corn, but unevenly impacted fields like this one in Marshall County.
Grant Gerlock
The derecho knocked over standing corn, but unevenly impacted fields like this one in Marshall County.

Iowa’s farmers had plenty of clear skies for field work during the past week, which increased the need for rain. Moisture levels in the soil are the lowest they’ve been since September 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop report for the week ending Aug. 23.

Corn and soybeans are both a little ahead of schedule for plant development, which Meaghan Anderson, an Iowa State University extension agronomist, says is not a good thing because it pushes the plants to mature too quickly.

Overall, the USDA report found just 50 percent of corn and 56 percent of soybeans are rated good or excellent, the lowest levels this season.

Anderson says severe damage from the derecho wind storm two weeks ago is a factor that has unevenly affected both crops. Within a single corn field, she says some plants may be completely lost while others are continuing to grow almost as though nothing unusual happened.

“It’s just a matter of what percentage of a field that is,” she says, “and in some cases that’s a very, very small percentage of these fields that are still standing.”

The worst damage occurred roughly along Highway 30, but Anderson says there are fields south of Interstate 80 and north of Highway 30 that were hard-hit. Many of the farmers she’s talked to are waiting for insurance adjusters to come out and evaluate their fields. Badly damaged crops might still have some market value as high-protein feed for livestock.

Unlike cornstalks, which Anderson says could not right themselves after falling over, soybean plants often recovered fairly well. Still, that doesn’t mean a farmer can count on a normal yield.

“Yield could be affected if the stem is compromised or that root tissue, again, is compromised at all,” Anderson says. “And then of course we’re going to be very susceptible to future wind events if anything happens before harvest.”

Looking ahead to harvest, Anderson says farmers have two primary concerns. The first is standability, or whether the crop is going to be able to stand up to the combining process after all the stress it’s been through, including the unknown impact on roots and stalk quality.

The second one is the quality of the grain. The damage came at the point in the season when plants were busy with the grain-fill process, Anderson says, and if that was compromised, kernels might be brittle or just lighter and both of those will impact farmers’ profit when they take whatever crop they have to market.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames