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Drought conditions getting 'ugly' for many state farmers

July 12, 2012 | 0 comments

"It's getting ugly out there."

That how several University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agents put it this week when asked about the mounting drought conditions in much of southern Wisconsin.

As the corn in many fields prepares to tassel and pollinate in the next 10 days, rainfall becomes even more critical. The next few weeks are critically important to many crops that have suffered with drought.

And those crops are crucial to the farmers who planted them and hoped for the best this year - a cropping year that began with early, unseasonable warmth and high hopes.

Bill Bland, UW-Extension's agricultural climatologist in the Department of Soil Science, told Wisconsin State Farmer that the weather pattern in the southern one-third of the state has shifted from an "extremely dry stretch into a serious drought."

"The southern third of the state is really dry but above that they're pretty much doing just fine. It's really bad in the southern third."

The drought-stricken region got no rain in June, which is typically the month with the highest average rainfall, he said, and the region is now behind from four to six inches of rain.

"It's starting to look like 1988," he said. "It's every bit as bad as 1988."

That year - which most farmers of a certain age can recall very clearly - there was 18 inches of rain from October through June. This year there was 17.6 inches, according to Bland.

In fact, it's starting to look worse than 1988. That year there was 1 ½ inches of rain in June. This year there was none.

The climatologist said there is also more heat this year. In 1988 there were only two days in June and one day in July when temperatures reached 100 degrees. Last week the state (and much of the nation) endured extreme heat and set new record high temperatures. In many southern Wisconsin communities temperatures were triple digits for days on end.

From a livestock perspective, Bland said, the heat this year was more survivable because it didn't come with the humidity that was present during a heat wave in 1995 when 800 people died in Chicago alone.

"This year the lower humidity may have helped keep the animal stress a little bit lower," he said.


As he's checked fields, Bland said he's noticed the importance of soil characteristics in how good the crops look. "Some fields that were planted at just the right time on really good soils don't look too bad, even with these conditions.

"But some later-planted corn fields and those on shallow soils are not doing well. Some are even dead."

It's such a psychological blow, Bland said.

Extension's corn specialist Joe Lauer is advising farmers to wait it out. His advice to farmers is to give it a couple more weeks before they do anything with their corn fields.

Lauer said he had been dreading putting out an article on what to do for drought-stressed corn and now he must. Corn management decisions during drought depend on the success of the corn plants to pollinate.

Corn farmers in the southern four tiers of counties will likely have to make the best of a bad situation, he said.

Lauer is advising farmers that in the next few weeks they can assess the success of their corn to pollinate. If pollination has been somewhat successful they can let the season play out and harvest the plants as they had planned to, for either grain or silage.

If they determine that pollination has not been successful they can go to plan B, using the corn for something other than grain - that would be silage, green chop or grazing.

"If pollination is poor yet some kernels are developing," Lauer noted, "the plant can gain dry matter and farmers should wait with harvest. In Wisconsin, many farmers have the option of harvesting poorly pollinated fields for silage use."



Soybean crops, because of the way they produce the bean, have a little more flexibility when rain can still salvage a crop, agricultural climatologist Bland noted. "Soybeans continue to blossom for such a long time that there's still hope for that crop if we get some rains."

When it comes to a corn crop, there have been some remarkable years when the plants were seriously stressed and some timely rains and good conditions were able to bring forth a fairly decent crop, he commented.

"But it's getting harder and harder to say that with each passing day," Bland said.

He finds it discouraging that weather forecasters are becoming more pessimistic about rainfall.

"Up until last week they were taking the position that 'there's no reason to think it won't start raining.' And now they've gone more pessimistic," he said. "None of their computer models are finding rain."

Bland said Dane and Columbia counties are "ground zero" for the damage caused by this drought.

Lee Jennings, the crops and soils agent in Dane County, said fields in the county are at least five inches behind in rain since April 1. "It would take a lot of gentle rain to make up that deficit and the problem is that the atmosphere is so dry."

The air has been so hot for so long that it is making it nearly impossible for rain to form.

"It's very serious. I'm very concerned about the corn crop. I don't think it's going to amount to much. I'm guessing there's a more than 50 percent loss."

In county corn fields, Jennings said the number of kernels has already been determined and many fields have gray or bluish colored plants that are rolled up like a pineapple in an effort to conserve what little moisture they got.

The earlier corn was planted this spring, the better off it appears to be faring, he said. Some later planted corn never did have any rain fall on it and it's in trouble.

As far as alfalfa crops go, he said the first and second crops of alfalfa were pretty good in the county and the third crop is "just sitting there waiting for moisture."

That third cut will be significantly down and if there's no rain he's afraid that that might be the end of the alfalfa harvest for the season.

Though the drought conditions end north of Stevens Point or so, Jennings said it's unlikely that farmers who've lost their crops would be able to haul silage such long distances. "It's unaffordable."

Still, he knows of chopped corn from drought-stricken fields in Illinois that's coming to Wisconsin to be used as livestock feed.

"It's ugly here but honestly there are places where it's worse. Indiana and southern Illinois have a more severe drought. Missouri has a severe drought along with western Kentucky. The eastern half of Iowa has the same drought conditions that we have."

Advice to farmers is to irrigate if there is any way they can, but for most farm fields that isn't an option. "Rain dancing and praying for rain is probably the best we can do."

The Extension service is at work on a website to advise farmers on how to survive the drought, but isn't publicizing the web address until they are ready to publish it, he said.


George Koepp, agriculture agent for Columbia County, said he's seeing a whole range of conditions in his county's fields. "We have everything from sandy soil to muck to clay and the corn crop can vary by quite a bit from field to field and even within a field," he said.

Corn crops that were planted on the same day in the same field can vary from 16 inches in height to two feet and even six feet tall.

"In some places the corn looks okay but we know it's absolutely stressed. Once it starts to tassel it needs rain or we won't see much grain production," he added.

Farmers have been calling Koepp to ask what they should be doing. "I'm recommending they wait, as hard as that is for farmers to do. I had a farmer call me today and ask if he should disk his corn under, he's so disgusted."

Extension personnel have begun talking about the human toll of reduced farm yields and the emotional and financial trauma that may be caused. Koepp said that subject came up last week.

Most farmers he talks to are depressed and downhearted and very disappointed but most understand that it's part of farming.

"I talked to a farmer on Saturday who has been farming for many, many years and he related that he had 'never been skunked' and that the key to surviving something like this is to 'wait until next year'," Koepp said.

Of course he's in a financial situation to do that, the agent said, but others who have a great deal of debt may not be able to make it until next year.

Farmers with good corn yield insurance may be okay but even insurance can't make up for the $500 in input costs that many farmers have in an acre of corn. "By the time you factor in land rent, fuel, machinery cost and seed corn, $500 an acre is not unusual."

The excessive heat of the last week hasn't help an already stressed corn crop in southern Wisconsin, he added. "Corn doesn't grow much after 86 degrees. Anything above that is wasted on corn as far as heat units go."

The corn plant also needs temperatures to drop to 70 degrees at night because the plant also has to spend energy cooling itself, just like people and livestock, he added.

Koepp said this year's weather conditions, despite the damage to corn and hay crops, has produced some pretty good wheat crops in the county. As farmers wrap up harvest of that crop they're finding that winter wheat yields have been very good.

"Even though the crop was shorter, we've seen yields of 60 bushels per acre to 80 to even 100 in some cases," he said.

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