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Where once there was life

Soil is a living system, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University Extension soil management specialist and professor in the agronomy department at Ames.

Where once there was life

Soil is a living system, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University Extension soil management specialist and professor in the agronomy department at Ames.

That’s hard to believe when you’re standing in the midst of acre upon acre of cracked, gray earth, with blowing sand and debris dotting the landscape. What was once rich river-bottom ground now has a stark resemblance to cinematic portrayals of a post-apocalyptic world.

The flooded Missouri River along Iowa’s western edge has left devastation and destruction in its wake. Estimates put the number of acres lost to the summer flooding at as much as a half-million or more in 2011.

That total includes both sides, Iowa and Nebraska. Missouri lost acres, too. The river left its banks in late June, and waters did not recede until September, setting the stage for crop and soil loss that will be felt for years to come.

Key Points

Extended flooding along Missouri River has damaged the soil’s microbial system.

Getting plants in the ground as soon as possible is essential for restoration.

ISU Extension is providing expertise to help people recover from flood damage.

“It takes time to recover from this huge assault by the flooding,” says Al-Kaisi. “When water stays for too long, it changes the soil’s biological system from what we call aerobic condition — where oxygen is moving through the system — to completely submerged. There’s no oxygen there so it suffocates everything. It’s like taking somebody and putting them under the water. They’ll die.”

Helping producers recover

Partnering with the University of Nebraska, ISU Extension is using fact sheets, webinars and on-site Extension personnel to help farmers restore the damaged soil’s microbial system. Al-Kaisi says that requires plants in the ground.

“The microbial community is dependant on plant roots,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. The microbial fungi feed on carbohydrates from the roots and release phosphorus from the soil so roots can absorb it.”

Advocating the planting of cover crops like winter wheat and rye, Al-Kaisi says growing any plants, even weeds, is the only hope of rejuvenating the flood-ravaged earth. The cover crops also help reduce further erosion.

Lyle McIntosh is listening. Nearly 2,400 of his 4,000 acres of tillable farmland near Missouri Valley were under water. “The good news is we had warning,” McIntosh says. They were able to move equipment and grain out of the area before the water arrived. “The road out of here looked like Noah’s Ark, as a steady stream of farm equipment headed to higher ground.”

McIntosh was able to salvage isolated stands of corn growing on high ground, somewhat. “We didn’t use what was around the edges for fear of aflatoxins,” he says. And what was harvested produced 90 to 100 bushels per acre, about half the normal yield. “It was tough to accept, psychologically. It took awhile to absorb.”

Repairing damaged ground

Now, McIntosh is embracing the idea that the damaged ground can be repaired. Following the advice of Harrison County Extension program coordinator Rich Pope, he has seeded 500 acres to winter wheat, creating patches of glowing green amid the numbingly dull gray of the landscape.

Sowing it with a dry spreader and working it in with a field cultivator, McIntosh planted all he could where the water had receded. The remaining acres will have to wait until spring to plant. He’s planning on putting in corn and soybeans where possible.

Al-Kaisi suggests some farmers may want to plant fields to oats early, then follow with a second late planting of corn and beans.But there is much work to do before some of McIntosh’s land is ready for any kind of crop.

Some fields still host standing water in holes 40 feet deep and 3 to 4 acres in area. Sand dunes as tall as 4 feet tall dot others.

The sand poses unique problems. Known as blow sand, it is river silt deposited by the floodwaters. It is so fine, and nearly impossible to scoop, that even the experts are unclear as how to remove it. “Small amounts may be able to be tilled into the soil,” says Al-Kaisi, “but anywhere there is 2 feet or more it needs to be removed.”

There is no quick fix

“This will be very costly,” notes Al-Kaisi. “If soil stays for a long time without a plant growing into it, it will indeed be a challenge for any following crop.” McIntosh is prepared for future losses. Even with corn and beans in the ground, his land will not be fully productive for years.

Federal crop insurance has helped cover some loss of the crops, but little financial assistance exists for restoring the soil to productivity. The FSA’s Emergency Conservation Program could provide some aid, but funding for the program is uncertain.

McIntosh says he’s better able to weather the storm than some. Smaller, younger and less-established farms will face more challenges. “There are some who will just get out,” he says.

“There is no quick fix for this soil damage,” says Al-Kaisi. “The soil is a very dynamic system, a very complex system. And it’s going to take time to really rejuvenate. But don’t think it’s hopeless. If the field is clean, there is no sand on it, it’s probably a matter of finding a window to put any crop in it. The soil is very resilient.”

McIntosh is trying his best to stay positive: “There are places we can drive to now instead of going by boat. That’s progress.”

Queck-Matzie writes from Fontanelle.


SLOW RECOVERY: Farmer Lyle McIntosh stands amid what once was rich river-bottom ground, but now a Sahara-like sand field. It will take many years to return the river-bottom ground to productivity.


HISTORIC FLOOD: Rebuilding the levees and drainage ditch systems along the Missouri River are key to recovery. 2011 was a year for the history books.

This article published in the December, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.

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