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Management decisions help farm after drought

By Jennifer Carrico

Most farmers would just as soon not think about the past and continue to look into the future, especially when the immediate past includes one of the worst droughts in history. Western Iowa farmer Mike Kelley said even his irrigated corn was not very good last year, but was still way better than dryland corn. “We decided to add four new irrigation pivots this year to help ensure our crop for years to come,” he said. While last year’s challenge was not enough rain, this spring in Iowa, the challenge was too much.“We didn’t want to complain about the rain this spring even though it was challenging to get our crops planted,” Kelley said. “We needed it to get caught up after last year.” Kelley farms about 3,500 acres in the Monona County area, on the western border of Iowa, with his sons, Pat and Rob. The three each have their own ground, but share labor and machinery throughout the year.

This year they planted about 75 percent of the ground in corn, with the other 25 percent being soybeans. More corn was planted this year based on last year’s yields and weed control. They continue to have a problem with water hemp, which Kelley said has been easier to control in corn. He looks forward to new genetics, which are being developed by seed companies for better chemical resistance.

“Weed resistance really hit us hard in 2012. We have to make changes to be able to get the most out of our crops,” he said.

While in the past, farmers in his area relied more on raising their crops on dryland, they have now become more reliant on irrigation water to raise their crops. The return on investment ends up being better when moisture can be controlled better. “We have a total of 11 pivots on our farm ground. While knowing we will have water to raise our crops, it doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Management of irrigation pivots is hard work and the investment isn’t small,” he added.

Pivots must be checked on a daily basis for proper operation.

He said they are also fortunate to be able to use the Missouri River Alluvial Aquifer for a water source, which isn’t currently restricted and allows them to put on water when needed.

“Our wells are dug to 110 feet and we run the pivots even when there is rainfall. We don’t want to get behind on irrigating, because you can never catch up if you get too far behind and then you don’t get the most out of your investment,” Kelley said.

Soil type is another part of their management plan. In their area, there is a huge variation of soil type—some soil is high in clay and some is sandy, while other is very high quality Iowa soil. Each field may need different management based on soil type.

Kelley thinks the later than normal planting season means challenges are still ahead.

“We really are hoping there isn’t an early frost, or, actually a normal frost. Most farmers around here didn’t finish planting until mid-June, which is two to three weeks later than normal. We need a late fall to be sure to get the best yields from our crops,” Kelley said.

Weather challenges

Iowa State University Climatologist Elwynn Taylor said everything about this year has been like 1947 until the last week in June.

“The year 1947 was the fourth worst in Iowa weather history, with a very wet spring and then no moisture after June 1. It looked like this year would be that way until the cooler weather set in,” he said.

Kelley said it’s kind of a Catch 22 for the corn at this point. The cooler weather is buying time with the crops that are stressed because of lack of moisture, but heat is needed to bring the crops along to maturity.

Taylor said he expects the U.S. corn yield to be 151 bushels per acre for 2013, which is lower than what farmers would like to have, but considerably higher than 2012 yields.

“We are in an age of risk management. After last year, many have made changes, but you still can’t manage uncertainty and weather is the uncertain factor,” he added.

Kelley said yields on his irrigated ground in 2012 were near normal levels, but on the corners of the irrigated fields and his dryland fields, yields were 0 to 100 bushels per acre and much of it around 50 bushels per acre. Not a level where any profit can be made.

Taylor said he also makes an emphasis on root depth since plants need a good root system to produce the best yields.

“Corn and soybean roots in Iowa are about 5-feet deep. In Illinois, they are only three and a half feet deep. If roots aren’t the depth they should be by tasseling time, they won’t go any deeper,” he said. “That’s when we have problems with the plants producing the proper grain.”

Yields will also make a push on prices. Taylor said if yields are around the 160 bushels per acre line, to expect prices to dip to around $4.27 per bushel, but a lower yield in the 135 bushels per acre area, would push prices up to $7.10 per bushel.

Kelley said marketing his crop has always been the most challenging aspect for him.

“We often lose track of what is going on in the rest of the country regarding crops, weather and livestock and forget that we need to market our grain according to more of the big picture,” he said. “A higher price can sometimes kill demand and it’s important to have a good demand for our grain.”

Kelley said ethanol can sometimes get a bad rap by the public, but it has continued to provide a market for corn and helped develop new products since researchers are trying to find new uses for corn and ethanol byproducts.

Management decisions

Management of all parts of the farming operation continues to be a make or break part of the business. Kelley started farming in 1978 and when the farm crisis of the 1980s came around he wasn’t pressured because of proper management and the help of his father.

He’s hopeful that his sons will continue to enjoy the family farm as it has made him very proud to have them join him in a great profession.

“I know when my oldest son came back to the operation, it was a little less challenging to get started as it was for my younger son, who is only five years younger,” he said. “Farming has become very challenging and management is a key to survival.”

Even though he and his sons have their own ground, they talk about different strategies and management decisions. That’s what generations do in farming and he hopes that teaching his sons good management skills will help them continue to feed the world in future years.

“Sometimes when I’m in town, non-farm people will ask me what I’m up to. I reply, ‘I’m just feeding the world.’ When you really think about it, farming is a pretty awesome profession because we aren’t only providing for our families, but so many other families all around the world,” Kelley said.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at

Date: 8/26/2013


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