By Jeff Montgomery
NSP Staff Writer
Like most local residents, Virgil Schmitt has spent the past month expecting the familiar chill of spring to return to eastern Iowa.
But now, after weeks of unseasonable warmth, he is starting to realize that this isn’t going to be a typical year for area farmers.
“We are running a good two weeks, and probably closer to three weeks, ahead of time,” said Schmitt, an extension field agronomist for Iowa State University.
Forecasts for the coming weeks, meanwhile, do not indicate that things will cool down any time soon.
“It looks like we are going to continue to be in uncharted territory,” Schmitt said.
The unprecedented spring season has been a game-changer for local farmers, many of whom are still trying to figure out whether they should be excited or concerned about the uncanny conditions.
The first order of business, Schmitt said, is to figure out when to plant crops.
Normally, people would start planting around the 23rd or 24th of April. This year, Schmitt estimated, farmers could start as early as next week.
There is definitely something to be gained from getting a jump on the planting season.
Planting earlier in the year can often lead to better yields in the long term. Moreover, by planting a few weeks early, the year’s crop could pollinate before the “dog days of summer,” during which excessive heat can sometimes damage crops.
The people planting crops aren’t the only ones benefiting from a warm March.
Robb Ewoldt, a beef farmer in Scott County, is already reaping the rewards of the warm weather. He said that, over the past month, he hasn’t had to deal with many of the concerns that typically accompany the spring season.
“Mud is a very bad thing for young calves,” said Ewoldt, noting that wet conditions can increase the prevalence of diseases. “If you can put a calf on a dry, green pasture in March, that is almost unheard of.”
Local farmers, however, are well aware that there is more than one side to the story. While the scorching spring may be a sign of good things to come, the weather has also created an air of uncertainty as the season progresses.
Risk and reward
The possibility for higher yields is enticing, but most farmers have to decided to take their time when it comes to planting.
Mike Holst, the vice president of the Scott County Farm Bureau, said the possibility of a major frost presents the worst-case scenario for area farmers. For most farmers, crop insurance doesn’t kick in for at least another week, making the prospect of a deep freeze particularly perilous.
“Farming is always a gamble,” Holst said. “But in my view, it is way too risky to start planting this early.
The spring warmth has also raised some long-term concerns for farmers, who are unsure what to expect once summer rolls around.
Ewoldt, who farms corn beans, and alfalfa in addition to being a beef farmer, is worried that a lack of spring showers could be a sign of things to come.
“The last time we had a March like that was in 1988 and that was a drought year,” said Ewoldt. “For it to be this warm and dry now, you wonder what it’s going to be like in August. It puts a little doubt in your mind.”
Schmidt, meanwhile, is worried that the comfortable conditions may have made things a bit too easy on insects that could damage crops.
“There’s an old saying that what is easy on people is also easy for the vermin,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt urged local farmers to keep their eyes open for alfalfa weevils, the flea beetle, and the bean life beetle.
“I am not overly concerned,” he said. “But it is definitely worth it for farmers to take a closer look.”
Insects are not the only nuisance that could derail this year’s crop.
Schmidt said that the hot spring has led to early weed growth in the region, a fact that farmers will have to address as the planting season gets underway.
Schmidt said it’s too early to predict precisely how weeds, insects and possible frost will affect the year’s crop. Similarly, he cannot say for sure whether a warm March will lead to better yields this fall.
“Whether things turn out better or more profitable than normal is more a matter of what we see in the future, as far as the weather, than what we’ve seen in the past,” Schmidt said.
One thing is for sure, though. After an unprecedented month of March, area farmers have learned to expect the unexpected.