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In late August, travel between South Dakota and Illinois revealed extremes on both sides of the precipitation scale. In South Dakota, there was too much; in Illinois (picture), too little.
When I lived in northeastern South Dakota in the 1960s and 1970s, the James River was a tree-lined meandering river with well-defined banks. Somewhere, those well-defined banks are still there, but they’re now covered under a wall of water on U.S. Highway 12 east of Aberdeen.
Prolific rainfall in recent years has caused the James to swell out of its banks onto adjacent farmland. In drier days, this river-bottom ground was some of the region’s most productive farmland. Now, it’s home to ducks and wayward fish.
This flooding has impacted the region’s cropland that’s interspersed with prevented planting acres. Not all is bad news, though. These soybeans on my family’s home farm near Claremont, South Dakota, were looking pretty good on August 23 when I visited.
Moisture is still prolific in this area. A .6-inch rain had fallen the night before my visit. I was easily able to plunge an 18-inch soil probe with one hand into the soil.
This isn’t as good as it sounds. For every good-looking field, there are prevented planting acres like this one. Corn has also lost nitrogen due to rampant rainfall.
It’s a different world in Illinois. This corn on U.S. Highway 136 between San Jose and Havana, Illinois, was all done when I stopped by on August 31. Rainfall has been scant and heat plentiful in this area of west-central Illinois this summer.
The soil probe that I was so easily able to plunge into northeastern South Dakota soils didn’t make a dent in these drought-stricken ones. I couldn’t penetrate more than 3 inches with the probe in this field.
When I was snapping pictures in the area, Gary Gathman invited me to see he and his son, Tony, combining their first field of popcorn east of Havana, Illinois.
The Gathmans started harvesting popcorn on August 31, just slightly ahead of normal. Raising popcorn closely mimics harvesting field corn, although popcorn dries down more quickly, says the Gathmans.
This year has been a tale of two growing seasons in this part of west-central Illinois. The Gathmans struggled with excessive spring moisture during planting.
“On April 6 through the 8th, we planted a share of our corn early,” says Gary Gathman. “The weather was bad and maybe we shouldn’t have planted it, but when it was all said and done, it was the best thing we could have done.”
That’s because late-planted corn ran head-on into stifling summer heat that struck during critical growth phases. It led to significant ear tipback like this.
So far, irrigation has been helping soybeans stay in the game. These wilted soybeans show the signs of moisture stress. Fortunately, these were in the corner of a center pivot irrigated field.
The soybeans that are irrigated by center pivot irrigation look much better. “Irrigation is our insurance policy,” says Gary. “It guarantees us a crop.”
See how some of this summer's weather extremes affected these South Dakota & Illinois fields.