Corn base floating away

We have spilled many drops of ink crying for the loss to mud of our shallow prairie pothole lakes in Northwest Iowa. Pickerel, Elk, Silver and Lizard are not long for this world. Research from Iowa State University suggests that they will get filled in over the next 50 to 100 years unless we stop the steady stream of soil flowing in. Yet we know from that same research that the rate of sedimentation into these lakes has accelerated since 1980. Lizard Lake near Palmer was clear and relatively deep in 1950. Lately it was declared dead and drained, hoping for it to spring back to life as a marsh with healthier water.

It may be a cost of doing business in the richest corn complex the world has known.

But there may be another cost of doing business in store that could put us right out of that business.

ISU agronomy professor Dr. Rick Cruse, who runs the Iowa Daily Erosion Report and the Iowater Center, tells us that our corn base is floating downriver.

Cruse has been taking his analysis around the state trying to get people to listen:

Climate change is upon us. The only way we can continue to reach optimum corn production in an increasingly hungry world is to maintain the soil base that the Good Lord left us when the plow arrived after 1850.

We are not maintaining that base. This spring, an 11-inch deluge caused soil losses of up to 20 tons per acre in Buena Vista County. It was the worst soil loss this spring in Iowa.

Cruse notes that corn potential is derived from genetics, management and water transpiration. You can get the best genetics, get plant populations as high as possible, and you can only reach that crop’s potential with adequate water. Topsoil, rich in organic matter, stores water for the corn plant. Every inch of topsoil you lose, corn production capacity is lost with it.

Cruse suggests to our readers that they should check their yield maps from last fall to this fall in the same places: high ground and low ground. The low ground should show similar yields, since there is no topsoil loss to speak of. The high ground probably will show yield loss because of the dry summer.

The agronomist has traveled and studied in China. There, he said, water shortage driven by climate change caused wheat production to peak in 1999. It has been declining since.

In the next 20 years world population will grow by up to three billion people. We lost 41 million acres of farmland to development from 1982 to 2007. Forty percent of the world’s food comes from irrigated acres, comprising 18% of total acreage and declining.

“Iowa had the world’s best soil. Louisiana has it now,” Cruse said.

Demand for food and for better diets is increasing. Crop prices are on a trend line up and will continue that trajectory, Cruse thinks. The only incentive is for producers to produce in search of higher yields at higher prices.

The cost is not obvious, but it lurks below the surface.

Cruse said he has no doubt that crops are losing yield potential and will continue to. And, he said, corn quality has been declining as measured by protein content from Iowa fields.

“We’re moving down a one-way street,” Cruse said.

Genetics will take you only so far. Management can crowd only so many plants into a grid. In the end, you need soil that can hold water.

It’s in our lakes and rivers. Those prairie potholes are the canaries in the coal mine. Lose the lakes and you won’t be growing corn for long. Not in Iowa, anyway.

Building BVU

A hearty congratulations to Buena Vista University for exceeding its $30 million capital campaign goal by some $2.5 million! What a delight it was to listen to Board of Trustees Chairman Norm Nielsen announce that 155 new scholarships will be financed by the generosity of 5,656 donors. The campaign raised $13 million for direct support of students, $8.6 million for faculty and $3.5 million for facilities.

It is a testament to the depth of loyalty we share for Buena Vista.

It is one thing for grateful alumni to remember the alma mater. That’s heartening.

But we really marvel when we see the contributions from people who never attended Buena Vista. Harold Walter Siebens. Don Lamberti. Doug Clausen. They realized that BVU is a vital institution to Iowa in general and Northwest Iowa in particular. They are businessmen who know good value when they see it.

More than 5,000 other generous souls see the same thing every day in Buena Vista.

These are great days to be in Storm Lake.