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Extreme drought conditions worry northwest Iowa producers

Drought-tolerant corn can grow a decent crop in dry years, like this Syngenta hybrid in 2012.
Amy Mayer
IPR file
Drought-tolerant corn can grow a decent crop in dry years, like this Syngenta hybrid in 2012.

Dry conditions have expanded across the state. More of southern Iowa is seeing moderate drought, while parts of northwest Iowa continue to suffer from extreme drought.

The abnormally dry weather is coming at a critical time for crop development, resulting in parts of northwest Iowa seeing a significant deterioration in crop quality.

On a daily basis, field agronomist Joel DeJong said he sees corn leaves curling and soybean leaves turning over to protect themselves from the heat.

“Every day that we've got this – particularly the really extreme heat – I think is hurting our yield potential,” DeJong said. “Significantly more so closer to the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers than it is as you go east.”

The Drought Monitor map for Iowa shows abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions covering much of the southern portion of the state. The northwest region of the map shows moderate to severe drought, with a large patch of extreme drought impacting Plymouth, Woodbury, Sioux and Cherokee counties.
U.S. Drought Monitor
The Drought Monitor map for Iowa shows an expansion of moderate drought in the southern portion of the state. Parts of northwest Iowa remain in extreme drought.

DeJong said now is the time that kernel abortion can occur in corn. He said evidence suggests that’s happening rapidly in the region — as 69% of the region's topsoil and 65% of its subsoil have inadequate moisture.

He expects the region’s yields will be impacted more than they were during last year’s drought, due to a prolonged period of higher temperatures. Compared to last year, the region is seeing more 90 degree weather.

“Daily water demand for those crops could be double with the temperatures we're getting, from what we saw last year. The plants are unable to keep up with it,” he said.

On Don Kass’ farm in Plymouth County, Kass said his corn and soybean crops have been faring well so far. But, he’s starting to see signs of heat distress.

“It's kind of spotty,” he said. “Some fields look like they're there okay. Other fields, you can see that it’s lighter soil and that the lack of moisture is profound and they're really suffering.”

The region is facing the second driest June on record, dating back to 1896, according to state climatologist Justin Glisan. He said that’s typically the wettest month for the region.

“That's where we see drought expansion really take hold, especially given the temperatures that we're seeing recently – the 90 degree temperatures, windy days with low relative humidity that really sucks out any moisture that's available at the surface,” Glisan said.

From the start of April to the end of July this year, Sioux City has seen its least amount of precipitation on record, according to the National Weather Service.

The parts of Iowa in extreme drought have seen 15 to 25 inches below average precipitation since drought began developing more than two years ago.

Moderate drought throughout the state increased by more than 10%this week, bringing 60% of the state into abnormally dry conditions. Glisan said that’s better than what the state saw last year at this time, but he expects the conditions to worsen before they improve.

“If we continue to see these outlooks showing above average, or higher probabilities of warm and dry conditions, we'll definitely see an expansion of drought,” Glisan said. “Especially in August, when we typically see the drought peaking.”

The chart shows how moderate drought has expanded from last week to this week. But, it shows improvement from this time last year.
U.S. Drought Monitor
The chart shows how moderate drought has expanded from last week to this week. But, it shows overall improvement in drought conditions from this time last year.

Field agronomist Aaron Saeugling said this past month has also been harder for producers in southwest Iowa. Whereas June brought timely rainfalls, July brought a dry spell. He said the region needs to fill a deficit of around 4 inches of rainfall.

“In Adair County, they're really struggling in that they probably had less than three or four inches of rain on that crop,” Saeugling said.

Saeugling said there’s not much producers struggling against drought conditions can do, except focus on preparing for an early fall.

“So those growers that chop corn silage may want to prepare to do that task a couple of weeks earlier than normal to kind of prevent that drying out,” he said.

Kass said he’s disappointed to see drought hit northwest Iowa for two years in a row. Although his crop insurance will help insure the damage isn’t detrimental to his farm, he said he’d rather see his crops succeed.

“There's nothing you can do about the rain other than pray,” he said. “And, we're doing plenty of that.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.