Western Corn Belt planting moves ahead, but drought fears linger

Farmers in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota are making swift progress on planting after a cold April forced them to adjust their early planting plans.

After cold temperatures in April squashed hopes for an early planting season, farmers are making up for lost ground in the western Corn Belt.

In northeast Nebraska, Belden farmer Jim Miller said they waited to plant until recently because the soil temperatures never warmed above 50 degrees, with some overnight lows in the mid-20s.

“I just couldn't get excited about putting seed in the ground as expensive as seed is these days and as high as our input costs are why we decided to hold off,” he said.

But he said they’re still in a very favorable planting window.

“This is about the time that we normally start," Miller said. "So, we don't feel like we're behind the eight ball because we're getting a slow start. We're about on our normal pace, I would say.”


However, Miller said they were hoping to get the crop in early to have the best chance to get above trendline yields.

“So it is nice to get the beans in early. It gives them a little bit more advantage of utilizing the sun and helps out with the yield and adds more nodes to the plant and for every three nodes you add a bushel to your yield. So, that is all an advantage to planting early,” he said.

They also were also trying to get some early beans to market.

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Nebraska farmers had hoped to get in the fields early in order to get higher yields to correspond to higher prices, but a cold April delayed the start of the season. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

“There was a lot of talk about getting some soybeans in early so that hopefully we could maybe take advantage of some of the old crop prices versus compared to new crop prices if you get those beans out early,” he said.

Mike Korth farms with his brother Mark near Randolph, Neb. He said the field conditions have been nearly ideal and there’s enough topsoil moisture to get the crop emerged. However, there’s no subsoil reserve.

“We are dry. It's a big concern, I mean if we don't get timely rains, this area will suffer bad cause we are dry. I mean we've had a few itty bitty rains here and there but they just haven't amounted to enough. . . . Our subsoil is totally depleted,” he said.

Korth’s farm is about 50% irrigated and he’s still optimistic that with some timely rains, the dryland fields could achieve some good yields.


“Oh yeah, I think we could, everything went right we could be on board for a bumper crop, maybe not a record crop, but a bumper crop,” he said.

And barring a disaster, he said it’s exciting to plant a crop with corn and bean prices near historic highs and cash basis levels on fire.

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Concerns about drought and dry conditions continue across the region, including Nebraska. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

“In 2013, after the drought, we had a great basis, too, but this is something that we’re not used to having these tight of basis around here,” Korth said.

As a result, Korth is taking advantage of the opportunity to forward price his new crop.

“And I’m over half sold on beans and about a third on corn,” he said.

He said it only makes sense to lock in some prices at these profitable levels.


Read more about the 2021 planting season:

Iowa plants in 'garden' conditions

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Planting has moved quickly in Iowa, with farmers saying conditions have been close to ideal in recent weeks. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

In Iowa, farmers had a fast planting season in 2020, but 2021 may surpass that. Rock Rapids farmer Dean Meyer doesn’t recall a year where he was able to finish planting this quickly.

“This year’s been amazing. You know, we all were worried about it being cold and not getting to the field and it's just like a switch," he said. "The weather changed and we got our corn all in in seven days.”

He said some farmers were able to plant soybeans at the same time or before corn this spring, but they stuck with planting corn first.

Field conditions have been ideal according to Meyer, who didn’t have to go around any potholes in the field.

“Actually, it's just like a garden out here this year. Every field I planted I felt really good about," he said. "There are those years you plant in marginal conditions, but they couldn’t have been better this year. Every square foot of the farms got farmed.”

Meyer is a cattle and hog producer in northwest Iowa and said they generally plant two-thirds of their acres to corn and a third soybeans to make sure they cover feed need for their livestock. So, they didn’t make any changes in their planting scheme this year. Although the USDA’s Prospective Plantings Report showed an increase in corn and soybean acres in Iowa, it did show fewer acres for both crops across the nation than had been expected. Meyer doesn’t think that will hold with this fast planting pace.

“With the weather we’ve had, farmers still like to plant corn," he said. "I think there’s going to be more acres of corn put in.”

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Iowa was ahead of the five-year average for planting progress as of the May 3 crop progress report from USDA. (Michelle Rook / Agweek)

He thinks many farmers also had their fertilizer booked before the big price hike.

“We had most of it booked and were able to take advantage of the manure from our livestock operation to make up the rest,” he said.

Dryness is a concern in western Iowa after much of that area was in extreme drought through much of the 2020 growing season. That condition has lingered into this spring as indicated on the U.S. Drought Monitor . The moisture shut off halfway through the 2020 growing season, but while there is a concern about a repeat in 2021, June is the best month for moisture. Plus, on April 15, Iowa State University showed Lyon County’s soil profile nearly full.

“I think everything we got over winter and this spring went in the ground,” he said.

To achieve normal yields, he said they will still need rain, but their seeding populations and fertilizer rates reflect normal yield goals.

Farther south near Akron, Iowa, farmer Dave Heeren said while they didn’t get the crop planted as early as they hoped, the field conditions have been perfect.

“I would say it’s a record pace as far as getting it done because we have all day to work and everything’s working so well," he said. "We can go through everything and there’s no wet spots.”

Heeren planted much of the crop in a cloud of dust, but his fields weren't as dry as areas to the north and east of him in Iowa. He was lucky enough to get a couple of timely rains this spring. So, while the topsoil is dry, he planted corn 2 inches deep and hit moisture. Timely rains will be needed to get a crop, but he thinks it's too early to get concerned about a repeat of the drought year of 2012. Heeren used to be a seed dealer and has watched the improvement in genetics also lead to better than expected yields, even under stress conditions; that also keeps him calm.

Heeren’s planting scheme stayed nearly the same as 2020, though he planted one field to soybeans rather than a second year of corn because of the high price of fertilizer.

“Plus soybeans are such a cheaper crop to put in, and $15 soybeans are a pretty good ticket,” he said.

He still has about a third of his old crop left and hasn’t marketed any new crop yet. But at current prices, he said he knows he needs to pull the trigger on at least a portion of his production.

Dry fields in South Dakota

In South Dakota, farmers are planting in ideal field conditions. Chad Schooley farms near Castlewood in the northeast part of the state and says he planted his corn and soybeans in near record time, finishing up in the first week of May.

“I can’t remember planting going this fast and field conditions being this good,” he said.

The fields are dry on top but he says there’s plenty of moisture for the crops to emerge. “However, as soon as the crop is planted, we’ll be praying for rain,” he said.

Schooley is concerned as the U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of the state in some level of drought.

“The Watertown, Castlewood area is one of the few places in the state that isn’t lit up with some drought, but we’re not far from it. You can just kind of feel it that that’s the direction it’s going,” he said.

Schooley stayed with his normal rotation this year, even with the market bidding for acres.

“We’re probably 45% corn and beans and then 10% small grains and alfalfa. So, our rotation doesn’t change drastically with the markets,” he said.

However, South Dakota farmers are expected to plant more acres of soybeans and corn as many prevented plant acres will go back into production.

In southeastern South Dakota, Centerville farmer Tim Ostrem planted in dry soils.

“I’m hoping the old adage comes true that if you plant in the dust your bins will bust,” he said.

Ostrem was planting on his home farm — the same field that was nearly too wet to plant in 2019, a year in which he had to take prevented planting on some of his acreage. However, the moisture situation is a 180-degree difference after seeing a flash drought in his area at the end of the 2020 growing season.

“We are going from end to end of our fields, there is no turning around for any low spots, it's dry,” he said.

Ostrem no-till farms to save moisture and said there is enough moisture for the crop to germinate and get off to a good start. So, like most farmers, he’s trying to stay optimistic that his farm will receive some timely rains to produce a good crop.

“It doesn’t look good right now, from what most of the meteorologists are saying, but 20 days out is as far as they can project it,” he said.

Ostrem said he also has a good safety net in the worst-case scenario.

“We have some good federal crop insurance levels, too," he said. "If worse comes to worse, we will be looking at those as a rescue plan.”

Farmers are generally in good spirits because with the historical highs in the grain markets they are planting a crop they know is above breakeven.

“This is the first time since probably 2012 that, with our guarantees, we’re going to the field with a profit locked in for next fall,” Schooley said.

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