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Harvesting behind schedule

One week into October, farmers struggle to find time for corn and soybean harvest

Richard Roorda knows he’s about two or three weeks behind this harvest season, but so is every other farmer in Jasper County.

The culprit responsible for these delays was still hovering above the Prairie City farmer’s head late Wednesday morning: a looming mass of overcast skies, threatening to douse the Iowa landscape with another downpour.

Recent reports from the United States Department of Agriculture say “excessive rainfall throughout Iowa limited farmers to only 1.6 days suitable for fieldwork” during the first week of October. By then, only three percent of corn and five percent of soybeans had been harvested.

Another bout of rainfall is not what farmers need right now. Windy days? Sure, so long as it’s not bending the cornstalks to the ground. If they’re lucky, they might get a day of dry heat with low humidity, however unlikely. But rain? No, thank you. Not when crop progress across the state is especially low this season.

“You’d think we’d be combining like crazy. Normally, we would be. But, boy, not this time,” Roorda said. “We would have started at least two weeks ago. When you think about it we’re not too far from the middle of October. To start in late September is not out of the question. It just didn’t happen this year. We, clearly, are delayed this year.”

As he peered down at the rows of corns from inside the cab of his combine, carefully aligning the feeder between the half dozen or so stalks he was harvesting at one time, Roorda was having difficulty even describing the state of the season so far.

For the most part, he continued, farmers like himself are barely into the season, so it’s tough to gauge or compare. But it’s certainly late. No doubt about that. Plus, some of his crop has yet to fully mature to his liking. Some of his soybeans still have leaves attached to their stems.

Apart from harvesting a few plots of corn for cattle feed, Roorda said it was his first time out in the fields this season. Midway through harvesting the first row, he noticed he was picking up more cob than he wanted to. So he stopped the combine and took a moment to adjust his settings.

Roorda couldn’t help but grin. The first of every season, whether he’s planting or harvesting, it’s a challenge to remember exactly what to do and what not to do. After a few button clicks, his muscle memory kicked in and he was back to threshing and reaping a portion of his roughly 750 acres of corn and soybeans.

“It’s kind of exciting when you actually start in. It’s like, ‘Ah! We’re here!’ you know? We’ve been waiting for this for four-and-a-half months! We’re finally doing it,” Roorda said. “This is the spot you want to be this time of the year: right here behind the steering wheel. Once you get in here, it all comes back to you pretty fast.”

And what an eventful four-and-a-half months it was. This past spring, heavy rainfall had flooded farmers’ fields across the state, affecting planting cycles, drowning existing crops and washing away fertilizer. Summer temperatures were rather cool, too.

At this point, one of Roorda’s biggest fears is getting his combine stuck in the mud.

“That’s a sure sign of a bad day,” he said. “We’re late enough getting started that trying to finish before the season gets too late, you start to run the risk of snow and cold and freezing. Things just aren’t as easy when they’re frozen and cold. Of course snow is real (tough to) bear.”

Like Roorda, Monroe farmer Charles Birkenholtz also runs a largely one-person operation, although he does have some part-time help. Birkenholtz hasn’t harvested any soybeans yet, but the test blocks of corn were finally finished by early afternoon Wednesday. To him, this season just feels off balance.

“Usually by the 15th of September I’m combining, but I didn’t start until, oh, last week — might’ve been the first of (October) last week,” Birkenholtz said. “The ground is so damp, so it’s feeding moisture (to the crops). It’s cloudy today so I was thinking maybe trying some beans this afternoon, but I ain’t going to try it because they’re talking about getting some sprinkles.”

Indeed, by the afternoon the county began to see a bit of rain. Until clearer forecasts roll in, farmers will continue to be put farther and farther behind.

“We’ve been kind of behind all year,” Birkenholtz said. “I’ve been doing this all my life and I’ve never really combined this late before — as far as getting started. I’ve had times where you get started and combine so much and then you get a rainy spell, putting you a couple weeks behind. We’re just behind because the corn wasn’t maturing.”

According to the UDSA’s Oct. 7 crop progress report, about 52 percent of the corn crop has reached maturity while 68 percent of the soybean crop has begun dropping leaves, well below the five-year average during the first week of October.

Brock Hansen, a Baxter farmer, said he has harvested about three percent of his crops so far. He believes the slow start can be contributed all the way back to the abundant spring showers. Cool growing conditions didn’t help, either. Hansen recalled last year’s difficult fall season leading to yet another wet harvest.

“The cards have been stacked against us from the get-go this year,” Hansen said. “We didn’t have that State Fair heat to bring the crop along. It’s just kind of a combination of things from Mother Nature this year.”

She will continue to be farmers’ biggest challenge this season, as will the crops planted later into the season following the May rains. Hansen worries yields from those fields may be affected. Farmers’ priorities are to get the beans out as quick as possible, so long as they’re ready to be harvested.

“Last year, we had all the heat and humidity and the thunderstorms in October that caused the beans to swell in the pod and we lost a lot of bean bushels,” Hansen said. “That’s fresh in everybody’s minds. Everybody’s trying to get the beans harvested unless something like that — off and on — happens again.”

He added that 2019 has not been a great year for farmers, even those with livestock who struggled getting hay in because of — you guessed it — rain.

“It’s been a weird, wacky, late, ‘when-are-we-going-to-get-this-accomplished’ year,” Hansen said. “It has not been a farmer friendly year. It’s been a challenging year. That’s for sure.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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