Across a wide swath of central and eastern Iowa, people are dealing with the heartbreaking aftermath of a rare derecho windstorm that has turned what was looking like a big corn and soybean crop into deep losses for many farmers.
The Aug. 10 storm flattened cornfields and destroyed or damaged barns, machine sheds, livestock buildings, grain bins, and homes. Central and eastern Iowa were hit by winds up to 100 mph. A derecho is an inland hurricane with ferocious straight-line winds and varying amounts of rain.
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig traveled the area to get a firsthand look at the damage, listening to farmers and other folks affected. He held a phone conference with reporters Aug. 12 after viewing fields in central and west-central Iowa.
Naig was accompanied on the field visits by Iowa State University Extension area agronomists Meaghan Anderson and Paul Kassel, and state climatologist Justin Glisan. Joining Naig on the phone call press conference were Anderson and ISU Extension agronomist Mark Licht.
Naig says no other state along the storm’s 770-mile path from South Dakota to Ohio suffered the level of wind or hail damage that struck an estimated 10 million acres across Iowa. The storm started in southern South Dakota and northeast Nebraska, and moved across Iowa into northern Illinois and Indiana. Farms in Illinois and Indiana are also reporting crop and property damage, but not to the extent seen in Iowa.
“The worst wind was here in Iowa,” says Naig, citing information from USDA’s Midwest Climate Hub.
The 10 million acres in Iowa hit by the storm is about one-third of Iowa’s 30 million acres of crops. The impact of damage to grain storage bins and facilities (on-farm storage and commercial elevators) is still being calculated. Early estimates start at 25 million bushels of storage capacity damaged or lost.
Glisan says the storm started in an area over southern South Dakota and entered northwest Iowa around 8 a.m. Monday. Moving east, the storm steered into a warm air mass with very strong winds. It quickly turned into a storm front as it marched across Iowa covering an area roughly between Highway 20 on the north to Interstate 80 to the south.
The storm arrived in central Iowa at 11 a.m. with wind speeds up to 100 mph. As the derecho proceeded into eastern Iowa, its coverage area expanded. By the time the storm disbanded in western Ohio late in the day, it had held together for 14 hours and journeyed 770 miles at an average speed of 55 mph. Rainfall along the storm’s path ranged from a few tenths of an inch to several inches with some locations hit by hail.
25 counties now disaster areas
On Aug. 12, work began on a USDA secretarial designation to name the derecho area as an official federal disaster area to aid people impacted by the storm. Since there is no weather disaster legislation in place for 2020 relating to the derecho or other storms, Congress will need to act. But the secretarial designation will serve to help get legislation passed.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has issued state disaster proclamations for 25 counties impacted by the storm. The proclamation allows counties to use state resources to proceed with storm recovery and suspends some regulatory provisions to allow clean-up crews to take care of damage. There are lots of downed trees and tree limbs on streets and roads everywhere.
Cornfields in the storm’s path were hard-hit, especially those with rows running north and south. Many fields were flattened and in some the stalks were snapped off. Soybean fields also were damaged, but the severity and extent of crop loss is less certain given the crop has time to mature and recover.
Grain bins, buildings lost
In addition to grain storage bins severely damaged, swine and poultry barns have sustained structural damage. Loss of electricity for several days in towns, cities and rural areas hindered local businesses, such as feed mills livestock producers rely on.
BLOWN OVER: Many on-farm storage bins were damaged or destroyed as were commercial elevator facilities hit by the ferocious windstorm.
Naig is encouraging farmers to report damage to their grain storage facilities to the Iowa Department of Agriculture. “We are trying to make an accurate estimate of how much storage capacity Iowa may have lost in this storm,” he says.
Iowa farmers with damaged crops will face a lot of headaches trying to harvest them, especially as they try to salvage the flattened corn. “Nearly every acre of corn in this derecho is affected in some way or another,” says ISU’s Anderson. “Some fields are flattened, some are just leaning over, some plants are snapped off.”
Agronomists say soybean plants will recover better than corn plants. Soybean plants are already straightening up in many of these fields.
What to do with damaged crops
“First, call your crop insurance agent and have them send someone to look at your damaged crop,” Licht says. Growers will have to decide in the next couple weeks whether they will try to harvest injured corn as silage to feed to cattle. Or are the plants healthy enough to leave in the field longer to mature and harvest for grain?
Yields for the damaged corn, he says, could end up being 100 to 150 bushels per acre in many of these fields. Iowa’s statewide average for corn yield this year was projected by USDA to average 202 bushels per acre prior to the storm. That USDA estimate was based on conditions as of Aug. 1.
Many farmers will turn to crop insurance to help cover their crop losses. “More than 90% of Iowa farmers carry crop insurance,” Naig says. “It is indeed an important safety net.” What about grain that was lost from the damaged grain bins? There’s no federal program to help farmers who lost stored grain. Some may have private insurance to help but most will likely wait to see if federal or state programs are initiated to provide some financial aid to help cover this loss.
Harvest to be slow-going
The challenge will be getting whatever yield that’s in the field into the combine, given the difficulty of harvesting downed corn, with tangled stalks. “We won’t know the extent of crop damage until the combines roll, and unfortunately harvest will be slow in those fields as it will be difficult to harvest the downed corn,” Licht notes.
“There’s a lot more breakage or pinching of stalks than I initially thought, now that I’ve been out and looked at more fields,” Anderson says. “For corn plants that were bent, and stalks not broken, there’s some hope they’ll stay alive and produce, but it will be a significantly reduced yield. And it will be difficult to harvest. If the stalk snapped, the plant will die. Those fields can be chopped and used as cattle feed.”
The windstorm brought some rain, but not a lot. “It didn’t change the drought situation,” Glisan says. “Iowa is still the epicenter of the drought this summer, as states around Iowa are getting rain.”
Iowa’s driest areas only got an inch of rain or a half inch or less in some places, from the derecho. However, rain totals from Cedar Rapids east into Illinois were 2 to 3 inches in some locations.
Iowa Corn Growers Association CEO Craig Floss surveyed the storm damage on his father’s farm east of Des Moines on Aug. 12 and found two machine sheds destroyed and grain bins significantly damaged. The corn was flattened in the field and the family home in need of repair.
“The main message out there to folks is this bad weather really comes at a time when farmers are already significantly hurting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, trade policy disputes and other issues,” Floss says. “There’s a lot of stress in the countryside. It was already stressful. This hard hit from the windstorm just adds insult to the injury that was already there.”