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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Northey maintains optimism amid drought concerns

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey will be watching precipitation amounts both as a statewide officeholder and as a farmer east of Spirit Lake. He said crops need about 15 inches of moisture to thrive. Between 4 inches and 6 inches of well-timed rain after the thaw could help drought concerns.
(Photo submitted)
Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture was making his way back from an international trip when a pre-Christmas snowstorm bogged down his return.

Flights were delayed and roads were slick as the Des Moines area was tied up with blizzard conditions.

Northey's elected office keeps him in the capital city, but his thoughts turned to his Dickinson County farm on the Friday afternoon before Christmas. Northwest Iowa only received a fraction of the snowfall seen elsewhere - and even Central Iowa's heavy snowfall can only put a minimal dent in drought conditions.

"Often, even when a person gets one or two feet or more of snow - which is lots of snow to try to handle - you end up with not very much water really getting into the ground and still being there for you later on," he said.

Local ISU Extension Crop Specialist Paul Kassel pulls soil samples from the Northey farm to measure moisture levels.

"We were actually drier a year ago than what we are right now," Northey said of his soil east of Spirit Lake. "A year ago, we were really dry in the fall - and that was kind of the dry area of the state. The rest of the state was pretty good - or at least much better."

Farmers are always optimistic, Northey says. Well-timed rain in May spared growers from the full effect of a drought in 2012.

"It soaked in and really helped us in late summer up there, versus some other places," Northey said. "We didn't get a lot of rain once summer really hit and, with all the heat we needed every bit that we got. We got some pretty decent crops in spite of that. Now, we used up most of the water again, we're back to very dry shape and we're going to need some help ... If we don't, then our crops are going to struggle."

During the course of a growing season, about 15 inches of moisture is ideal to grow a crop.

"That can be either during the season or in the ground," Northey said. "This last year, we got some of it in May, so it was in the ground. Then the rest of the year, we didn't get very much at all, so we're probably in a place where we could sure use 10 inches or so. It can't come all at once because we've got to soak it in, but that soil can hold over 10 inches. We certainly could get the good out of that much. And we need more than that sometime between now and spring."

Even two or three inches of rain can be a safety net, if it falls when frost is out of the ground, according to the ag secretary.

"We've got to be able to have a situation where we can get the crop in - in good shape - and let the roots go down," he said. "We had roots last year that were five and six and seven feet deep - going down to get that last little bit of moisture."

If Iowa doesn't get well-timed rains, "it can be really huge," according to Northey.

"It depends on how much prices go along with it," he explained. "This year, prices went up for grain production, so the fact that we got a little less crop was compensated in prices to some extent - depending on how much less crop a guy got and how much crop he sold ahead."

He continued, "If we're short again this next year, you have less bushels to sell as a crop farmer. It also really hits our livestock producers really hard. The higher prices for grain - for the feeding of livestock - can be a real problem. We're seeing that struggle right now with smaller livestock producers out there."

Northey said agriculture production is a $30 billion industry in Iowa - about $20 billion is crop production, the remaining $10 billion is generated by the by livestock industry.

The balance sheets impact pocketbooks as the cost of food rises for consumers.

"You can't always see it right away, but we are starting to see some impact on the livestock side," Northey said in December. "With meat and dairy, we'll start to see impact on those prices and we'll still see it into next year (2013), where we will have issues. It will have an impact all the way to the counter."

"Hopefully," Northey said, "we'll have a lot more normal year this next year."

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