Every nine out of 10 years, Iowa farmer Dave Sieck expects the Missouri River to stay in its banks near his farmland in Glenwood, Iowa, about 15 miles south of Council Bluffs. But lately, it’s been a rough run. This is the third year in a run some Sieck and Midwest farmers are facing the threat of flooding.
“It’s a never-ending battle, especially on the bigger rivers,” he said. “We plan on losing a crop once or twice every 10 years.”
Heavy snow totals in the fall and winter and a quick rise in temperatures this spring are leading to massive snow melt. It’s more water than the river banks can handle along the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota; the Missouri River in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri; and the Mississippi River in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri.
For Sieck, the possibility of flooding means he has to start thinking about his planting plans, even though planting is about 4 to 6 weeks away for west central Iowa (Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota might begin planting in the 6 to 8 week timeframe). He has 40 percent of his land in the river bottoms. Tillage options, fertilizer application, crop selection and hybrid seed selection are a few of the many variables that now come into play.
“I have a lot more costs insuring this ground than regular ground, so I have to manage my inputs better,” Sieck said. “I’m sitting here thinking ‘what can I do to manage risk?’ Do I put triple-stack hybrids on ground that has a high incidence of flooding? Probably not. I start to manage my hybrids now. I’ll plant cheaper hybrids on the ground that may flood.
Flooded ground presents other challenges, too. More than likely, Sieck is forced to abandon no-till farming in the floodplain because flooding brings new sediment, which means he breaks out tillage equipment like the field cultivator and disk.
The flooding just doesn’t affect the river bottoms. The water table also rises for the land just above the floodplain or behind the levees.
“For the ground in the first and second terrace, I start looking at what impacts does the high river have for holding water on the ground,” Sieck said. “In saturated ground, water starts to stack up in water table. There’s surface water sitting on ground that can’t get to river, and sediment sits on the soil and the crop can’t get up.”
The wet ground thus impacts Sieck’s crop mix and seed selection. Does he take a risk and plant corn, knowing there may be a chance of another flood in late spring (a “Father’s Day Surprise,” as Sieck calls it)? Or does he wait until the “Surprise” passes and plant soybeans? If that’s the case, then he needs a soybean variety that has some disease resistance.
“The timing of when you plant is critical,” he said. “Do you go out as soon as you can and plant it? But then you might have to replant if flood conditions arrive. If you plant it later, you take the risk you may not have as good of yields. Or you may have to switch from corn to beans.
“There’s so much money involved, you want to make sure you get it right.”
Getting it right is tougher, with seeds, fertilizer, fuel and land costs rising. Sieck sits on the board of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, a group that meets to discuss the goals of taking care of the needs of wildlife in the floodplain. Sieck and another farmer represent the interests of farmers in eight states.
“A farmer’s whole job is to manage and mitigate risks that Mother Nature throws at you and hope to get a high-quality crop that you can sell and make money,” Sieck said.