Drought conditions persist in Iowa

By Joseph L. Murphy

Iowa has seen its share of snow over the past 10 days. That snow has snarled traffic, stopped commerce and caused headaches across the state. One thing it hasn’t done according to weather experts is help with the drought.

The stream that flows under the Cedar Bridge near Winterset has been at a trickle for a majority of the summer. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

The stream that flows under the Cedar Bridge near Winterset has been at a trickle for a majority of the summer. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Looking at precipitation amounts across the state and comparing it to the most recent USDA drought monitor, you can see a trend that confirms areas of the state are still in a dry pattern. One of the hardest hit areas according to precipitation data is Northwest Iowa.

“Although this winter’s precipitation has been near or even above normal across the southeast half of Iowa, conditions have remained below normal across the northwest half of the state. There are no significant indications that Iowa’s drought–especially across northwest portions of the state–will end in the coming spring months,” said Jeff Zogg, Senior Hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines.

Even though much of the state has received near normal snowfall this winter, a significant impact on the dryness is not expected due to the snowfall alone because of the snow’s relatively low water content. “To make a significant impact on the drought, we need several months of near to above normal rainfall beginning with this spring season,” Zogg added.

Mike VerSteeg, a farmer from Inwood is experiencing the drought in northwest Iowa first-hand. He has watched storms pass to the north and south of his farm with only small amounts of rain and snow falling in his area.

“We’re right on the edge,” VerSteeg said. “It makes a guy nervous going into this year with depleted subsoil moisture. We’ve had some snow and rain over the past month, but the problem is the ground is frozen, so it is all ending up in the creeks. I wish there was a way to keep some of it for spring.”

VerSteeg was happy with the performance of his crops considering the lack of rain last year. He recorded an average soybean harvest and slightly below average corn harvest. Looking forward, he plans on planting the same or slightly higher populations on his no-till and strip-till crop ground, while being hopeful that the moisture comes.

“If you plan for a drought, you’re going to get a drought,” VerSteeg said. “We’ll keep things the same and pray it rains.”

Drought dries dairy profits

By Joseph L. Murphy

I’ve been trying my hand at cooking lately and found that many recipes I make require milk. It wasn’t until a recent visit to a dairy farm that I discovered milk has its own ingredient list. Items like Hay, corn, soybean meal and silage are the ingredients that help to make delicious and nutritious milk. What happens when those ingredients dry up?

Kelly Cunningham, a Managing Partner of Milk Unlimited Dairy Farms in Atlantic, worries that drought conditions will continue to impact the dairy industry. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Kelly Cunningham, a Managing Partner of Milk Unlimited Dairy Farms in Atlantic, worries that drought conditions will continue to impact the dairy industry. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Those ingredients, or feed supplies, are becoming harder and harder to find as the drought conditions expand across the country. Ingredients like corn, alfalfa, cottonseed and hay have been impacted by the dry weather so availability is becoming less and less.

“My dairy cattle don’t know there is a drought going on,” Kelly Cunningham, a Managing Partner of Milk Unlimited Dairy Farms in Atlantic, said. “We still need to find food for them and to do that we’re bringing in hay from as far away as the four corners region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.”

It would seem, for dairy farmers across the country, that possession truly is nine-tenths of the law these days. As the drought ruins more and more of the crops, possessing the hay used for feed becomes exceedingly significant in protecting it from other buyers wanting to purchase it for a higher price.

Cunningham manages a dairy farm that has 3400 cows. The cows produce milk in comfort on sand beds and in tunnel ventilated buildings. Those practices help keep the cows comfortable year round. There are 33 employees at the dairy but Cunningham is quick to point out that, for every employee, there are 15 other jobs tied to the farm in the area.

“We like to say that we’re a 15 family farm,” Cunningham said with a smile. “We provide milk to Anderson Erickson in Des Moines four times a day.”

Currently businesses like Anderson Erickson pay around $18 per hundred weight of milk. That number has shrunk from last years price of $23 per hundred weight. Combine that decrease with an increase in feed costs due to the drought and that is a recipe for troubled times.

“My milk has gone down $5 per hundred weight while my feed has gone up 25 percent,” he said. “So it is a double whammy right now.”

Cunningham went on to say that the future price for milk is expected to go up over the next three months so that should give them some relief. The duration of the drought has Cunningham worried about feed supplies for next year and beyond. At those prices, Cunningham will need milk prices to be at $20 or $21 per hundred weight to break even.

“Right now you’re pulling out of your savings account to keep your business running,” Cunningham said. “You can do that as long as you have something in your savings account. So we might have to look at scaling back the cows we milk and try to find cheaper feed. We have to make up that money from somewhere.”

Alternative feeds have been one way of closing the feed cost gap for his dairy. Ingredients like Molasses, beet pulp, and cottonseed have helped to supplement the diets of the cows while using less of the expensive commodities like corn and hard to find ingredients like hay.

“We are doing things every day to prepare for the future and prepare for the volatility,” Cunningham said. “We have cheaper feed in this area because this is where everything is grown. That gives us an advantage over other areas of the country that have to pay transportation costs to get their feed. Here in the Midwest we have as good of a chance as anyone to make it.”

Cunningham went on to say that the costs that they are paying for feed ingredients will raise the cost of ingredients in the food that we eat. So next year the gallon of milk pulled from the cooler at the grocery store could cost you 20 percent more.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news

Burkens optimistic despite drought conditions

By Joseph L. Murphy

With an optimistic eye on the weather, Jerome Burken, an Iowa Soybean Association member, still has hope that his crops will beat the drought that is impacting much of the Midwest. For Jerome and his son, Gary, timely rains and rich soil on their Clinton County farm have given them hope. Now all they need is rain.

“You see on the maps that we are listed in an extreme drought,” Jerome Burken said. “But as a whole, when I walk into the corn and bean fields they do not look bad.”

As Jerome Burken pauses from working at his workbench, he peers out of his machine shed at one field of corn, which looks good. One mile down the road Gary Burken prepares to bale a hayfield that is doing great despite the lack of moisture.

“If we don’t get rain for the next two or three weeks it could be a whole other situation,” Gary Burken said while placing his wrench on the table.

Gary Burken scouts one of his soybean fields near Clinton. Burken is happy with his beans and is hopeful that rains in August will fill the pods. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Gary Burken scouts one of his soybean fields near Clinton. Burken is happy with his beans and is hopeful that rains in August will fill the pods. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

His son Gary agrees with the assessment of their fields and attributes the decent crop conditions to heavy rains that they received in April. A calendar that Jerome Burken uses to track rainfall on their farm west of Clinton shows five rains that only produced about three inches of rain.

“We had a lot of subsoil moisture and I think that is what we are thriving off of now, but it has to be running out,” Gary said while looking over the rolling hills of his Clinton County hayfield that will be used to feed his cattle.

Gary is happy with the performance of his hay fields even being in the fourth and fifth year, but he is keeping a careful eye on the markets related to the cost of corn and other feed. He said soon he will have to make tough decisions that will impact his livestock business next year.

“The Price of feed has escalated so far and so fast that we can’t get ahead of it,” Gary said. “You can’t put a price on a bi-product because it is so high. We won’t stop feeding cattle, but I’m concerned. We’re contracted through October so I can ride it for a while.”

Other areas not far from the Burken farms haven’t been as lucky. Farms near McCausland just 17 miles to the south have fields of corn that are brown and down from wind damage. According to the USDA Crops and Weather report released on Monday corn and soybean conditions declined slightly last week.

“The cooler temperatures and rain over the weekend brought some relief, but crops remain stressed,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said. “Crop conditions continue to worsen, and much more precipitation is needed.”

The forecast for measurable precipitation still looks bleak for much of the state according to the Weather report. Temperatures for the week as a whole averaged 4.2 degrees above normal making this the thirteenth week of the past fourteen to average warmer than normal. It also showed that the statewide average precipitation was 0.62 inches or about twothirds of the weekly normal of 0.96 inches. This was the twelfth week of the past thirteen with less than normal rainfall.

Originally published for the Iowa Soybean Association. Find more great stories at: www.iasoybeans.com/news