A most unusual planting season

May 16, 2012

On this bright spring morning at Blackbird Bend, along the Missouri River, the scene is a little odd.  A 24-row corn planter is brushing over the tops of a stunning winter wheat crop, 12 inches high.

These 1,000 acres would make a Kansas wheat farmer proud.

But Brent Hayes is an Iowa corn farmer.

“I’ve never seen this good a stand of wheat in our area,” he said during a pause in the corn planting near Onawa, Iowa. “To be destroying it is kind of sad.”

But destroy it he did, right after he finished planting his corn.  The wheat had served its purpose, after all, bringing life back to this land depleted by last year’s historic Missouri River flood.

Last fall, officials predicted that this farmland in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas might be out of production for at least a year.  The flood had piled up sand dunes, gouged out deep holes, and killed off many of the microbes that help crops grow.

But now it’s spring, and farmers are back on the land, trying to fix what nature broke — even if it means trying out some unusual strategies.

There’s a real sense of history as farmers glide their planters over top soil that is not as rich as it used to be.  In Iowa alone, more than a quarter-million acres of ag land were inundated, including about 10 percent of Dave Hausman’s property.  He’s scraped off the sand and silt, and planted oats to control erosion and restore the microorganisms. 

Hausman later will eradicate the oats and reclaim the land for soybeans. 

“Given the circumstances I don’t feel bad about that at all (killing oats) I think that is an investment that we have to make in order to try to enhance production of that ground with a primary crop, which will be soybeans,” he said.” 

But despite 50 years of farming experience, Houseman never learned how to deal with this, and has joined his neighbors in seeking guidance from the experts.

“We’re following their advice and they readily admit they don’t know what the end result will be either,” Hausman said.

Together, they are truly breaking new ground.

During the flood of 2011, cropland was submerged for about three months — and essentially suffocated, said Rich Pope, with Iowa State University Extension. The Missouri River flood of 1952 swamped a much wider area, but the water quickly receded.

“There are areas out here that have not had this duration of floodwater in something like 10,000 years,” he said “The time when the last glacier was melting, the last glaciers, was when the Missouri River valley filled.”

That means no one in North America has had an experience like this, Pope said, so that means extension experts are trying to figure out the best solutions too.

“One of the comments that my colleagues and I have gone out and said, and when we’re working with farmers directly is, no one can tell you what is the right thing to do.  But we can give you some things to think about,” he said. 

And these men of the Earth are optimistic; since this anemic soil can sustain cover crops like wheat and oats, they expect it to ultimately provide good returns again for corn and beans.