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Landscape: Betting the Farm

Missouri River Valley, Iowa and Nebraska

Commodity Crop Recovery Is a Challenge
and a Gamble in Western Iowa

Story by Carol Bodensteiner, photo courtesy Scott Olson/Lee Valley, Inc.

As spring approaches this year, Walter Utman is warily watching the Missouri River. And the levees.

Snowmelt and spring rains predictably cause the river to rise by March, but it’s the unexpected that Utman is contemplating as he plans his planting. Utman farms 900 acres four miles west of Harrison County’s Modale, right up against the Missouri River.

When the river left its banks in the summer of 2011, he lost 120 acres of corn and soybeans. “I couldn’t imagine that the river would do what it did last year,” says Utman, recalling flood waters that the USDA Farm Service Agency reports damaged 284,000 acres in six Iowa counties. “I still can’t imagine it.”

Utman says he and his wife, Ruth, went to bed each night wondering whether the dike a quarter mile from their home would hold, protecting the farmstead they’d farmed since 1978. “Nights were pretty unnerving. Sometimes we’d hear the train. We were sure it was the train — but what if it wasn’t?” A few times they abandoned their home to stay with their daughter in Missouri Valley, just for a chance to sleep through the night.

Utman considers himself lucky. The dike held. Elsewhere the damage was extensive. Almost 90 percent of Iowa’s flooded acres were cropland. The Iowa Farm Bureau estimates the economic loss at $207 million.

Iowa farmers were in the fields as soon as the water receded and the land dried enough, says Clarke McGrath, an Iowa State University Extension field agronomy manager. Returning flooded fields to productive cropland, however, is no easy task. According to McGrath, the flood created at least two major problems.

The first is visible: The river moved the land, depositing sand dunes up to 15 feet high while scouring out ravines 20 to 30 feet deep.The second is concealed below the surface: When water stands on the land for too long, the soil is robbed of oxygen, which, to oversimplify, alters soil chemistry and inhibits nutrient uptake by plants. The so-called flooded soil syndrome produced aerobically dead land.

“I was amazed at the damage. This is what a big, powerful river can do,” says McGrath.

Before land altered like this can be farmed, the sand has to be removed or distributed and incorporated into the soil. Holes and ravines have to be filled in. “Where there are high amounts of sediment or where there’s deep erosion, it may take two years to repair,” says Shawn Shouse, Iowa State University agriculture engineering field specialist.“Some farmers may farm around those areas while they decide if it’s worth the cost. If a levee hasn’t been repaired, they may question putting in a crop at all.”

Farmers can take steps to speed the recovery process. Planting a cover crop such as rye, oats, or wheat is one approach agronomists recommend for getting live roots back in the soil and generating aerobic fungi levels necessary for crop growth.

“Fungi will come back on their own, but it takes months to build up to normal levels. The fungi are there waiting for roots to grow on,” explains Shouse. “If the soil hasn’t been covered up or washed away, it should be back to a good, productive state as soon as the soil has drained and roots are established.”

“From a biological perspective, it makes great sense to try to get living roots in the soil as soon as possible,” says Rich Pope, Harrison County extension agent. “The more time live, functioning roots are present before planting a crop, the better.”

Unfortunately, persistent flood waters made that strategy unfeasible. Water wasn’t off much farmland until September. Then western Iowa experienced the driest fall on record. Tens of thousands of acres needed a cover crop and didn’t get it. A cover crop this spring is still an option.

“There’s about a six-week window from mid-March to early May where a cover crop could be planted, get roots established, and beneficial fungi can reestablish on these roots,” says McGrath. “If the weather cooperates, the cover crop could be established, then eliminated in time for corn and soybeans to be planted.”

Can Iowa farmers expect the land to then produce a crop? “There is no real way to know,” says Pope. “This flood event is unprecedented, agronomically as well as otherwise. Corn will likely be more affected than soybeans [due to nutrient requirements], but there is no way to know how much. We will have some nutrient uptake issues, especially with phosphorus and possibly with other nutrients.”

The stress Utman felt during the flood of 2011 hasn’t gone away. When he looks out across his land this spring, he thinks a lot about the levees. “The levees north of me are still intact, but they need work. They’ve never been tested like this. They were saturated. Will they hold?”

Farming is a gamble, admits Utman, who is putting in a crop this year, betting that the river won’t flood again. “It’s a chance you take. It’s a roll of the dice.”


Spring’s late melting snow and above-normal rainfall in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains forced record releases from upstream reservoirs in May. Some communities and farms on both sides of the Missouri spent the summer submerged (top).


Learn more about flood recovery online at > Topics of Interest > Recovering from Disasters. See more photos of the flood and aftermath online at



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