Early corn harvests spur optimism about yields despite drought

Corn crop harvest
A farmer harvests corn from a field in North Liberty Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. CREDIT RICHARD PRATT

Farmers so far have reported average or better corn yields despite their worries about the effect of this year’s drought, according to several Iowa State University Extension field agronomists who monitor different areas of the state.

Virgil Schmitt, the field agronomist who monitors far southeast Iowa, said farmers have been telling him: “Gosh, I don’t know where all this grain came from.”

Drought conditions affected about a third of the state at the start of the planting season and intensified significantly by July — the month in which corn typically reaches peak demand for water. Nearly 90% of the state was in a drought by then.

But the genetics of corn hybrids have helped the crops resist the stress of drought in the past three years and have led to record or near-record average yields. This year was also aided by a cooler-than-normal July.

“I would be shocked if we don’t have at least close to trendline yields if not maybe a little bit above,” Schmitt said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted this month that average corn yields in Iowa would be about 200 bushels per acre — the same as last year. That is down slightly from the department’s August estimate of 203 bushels per acre.

The record statewide yield average was 204 bushels per acre in 2021.

It will be weeks before there is an accurate estimate of average yields for this growing season. About 5% of the state’s corn crop has been harvested for grain, the USDA reported on Monday.

Those yields can vary widely from field to field, and sometimes in the same field. Schmitt said the early corn harvests in his area have ranged from 130 to 235 bushels per acre.

In far southern Iowa where drought has been among the worst in the state, field agronomist Clarabell Probasco said some of the first fields to be harvested had yields of about 140 or 150 bushels per acre. She noted that those fields were probably among the driest throughout the year, which accelerated the corn plants’ maturation.

In central Iowa, yields have been average or better, but some corn stalks are easily pushed over and might be more difficult to harvest, said Meaghan Anderson, the field agronomist who monitors that area.

“So far, from what I’m seeing, yields are remarkably good,” she said.

Only 21% of the state’s topsoil and 20% of subsoil has adequate moisture for growing crops, the USDA reported.

Crop conditions improved last week, which was slightly cooler than normal and had significant rainfall in southern and eastern Iowa. The state, as a whole, was still slightly drier than normal.

About 48% of the state’s corn crop is rated good or excellent, along with about 47% of soybeans.

Aaron Saeugling, a field agronomist in southwest Iowa, said he is concerned about the dwindling subsoil moisture that has helped sustain the state’s corn in recent years. The plant’s roots can go more than four feet deep into the soil.

But early harvests in his area have also had yields that were better than expected.

“Obviously, it’s far from a bin buster, but we’re optimistic that they’re pretty good,” Saeugling said. “Average or better. So that’s been a pleasant surprise.”

Originally published by Iowa Capital Dispatch. Republished with permission.