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2003 drought reduces profit potential


Fri, Sep 12th, 2003
Posted in Features

There is a saying among farmers, no matter where they live, that it “always rains around here ten minutes before it is too late”. After abundant rainfall up until mid-July, the 2003 growing season appears to be one when the rains may be even later than that.

The extent of our regional drought and its impact is unknown. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site quotes from Drought and Its Causes and Effects, Tannehill, 1947:

“We have no good definition of drought. We may say truthfully that we scarcely know a drought when we see one. We welcome the first clear day after a rainy spell. Rainless days continue for a time and we are pleased to have a long spell of such fine weather. It keeps on and we are a little worried. A few days more and we are really in trouble. The first rainless day in a spell of fine weather contributes as much to the drought as the last, but no one knows how serious it will be until the last dry day is gone and the rains have come again…we are not sure about it until the crops have withered and died.”

The jury is still out on “Drought 2003”and it is too early to draw conclusions about its severity. However, speculation as to the damage done to our major crops is currently a common topic. We know that reduced rainfall, extreme heat and cloudless days have all combined to make growing conditions tough for local crops. A crop with tremendous potential in mid-July has certainly lost a great deal.

Spotty Precipitation

Not every farmer is having the same drought experience. The spotty nature of this season’s rainfall makes general conclusions regarding crop prospects tricky. Jim Nelson, who farms south of Ostrander with his wife, Marilynn, and sons, Jay and Jeff, reported watching a storm pour 1.6 inches of rain on their farmstead while he watched from a short distance away. The same thing happened a few days later. Neighbors within a quarter mile received only a few tenths in the same showers. Jim’s fields appeared to receive far less than the building site.

Judy Johnson, ag lender for Southeast Bank in Harmony, visited with one of her clients who had done preliminary yield checks in corn at his farm south of Harmony. Within a mile on the same farm, corn yields are expected to vary from 80 bushels per acre to 140 bushels per acre.

Farmers are hesitant to draw conclusions regarding the quality and quantity of crops before the combines or choppers go to work. This is particularly true of soybeans, where pod counts and seed size are rarely definitive measures of final yield. There are several things that farmers are watching and are concerned about. The date of the first frost is always critical. Stressed crops mature slower and, if they have not already been killed by lack of water and high heat, every day a green plant survives is another day it can increase its seed weight. Unfortunately, sometimes the only green plants in a field are giant ragweed. In this case, frost is necessary to kill the ragweed to make combining soybeans a more manageable task.

Farmers are aware that corn stalk strength may be an issue this season. Stressed corn is susceptible to various stalk rots and molds that weaken the stalk tissue. There is an urgency to harvest drought-stressed corn as early as possible. This urgency is offset by the desire to not harvest corn that is too wet. The cost of propane for crop dryers is about double what it has been in recent years.

Crop Quality

Crop quality is a consideration. Test weight of corn, that is, how much a given volume of corn weighs, varies from year to year and between varieties. There is speculation that test weight will be down this season because the corn kernels have not had good opportunity to fill with carbohydrates as they normally would. Others have pointed out that lots of sunshine always makes for good quality grain. An early hand-shelled sample brought to the LeRoy Co-op last week weighed in at 54 pounds per bushel, certainly acceptable against the 56 pound per bushel standard. Lighter corn may be discounted several cents per bushel because of the difficulty elevators have in handling and storing lighter weight corn. Light corn has exactly the same feed value as heavier corn, so the farmer who feeds corn to livestock does not face that problem.

Some cattle producers face difficult times. Many pastures have long since been consumed and most producers have already been feeding this winter’s supply of hay and corn silage. Beef producers rely on cornstalks to feed their cattle in the fall months until heavy snow buries the stalks. A reduced corn crop means reduced stalk yields and less feed for their animals. Dairy producers who look forward to a typically excellent quality third cutting of alfalfa will not be getting much yield, if they dare harvest a third cutting at all. Alfalfa weakened by drought is susceptible to winterkill. Hay is selling at a high price already. Forage feeders will be working hard for the next year to make up for the lack of hay, corn silage, and cornstalks.

On a positive note, many farmers have chosen to insure their corn and soybean crops. Hay crops are not typically insured. New crop insurance policies will often help a producer avoid disastrous losses so that they can go on to farm another year. However, crop insurance rarely provides the opportunity for profit and financial progress as does a good crop at a good price. The government loan deficiency program (LDP) won’t pay farmers for bushels they don’t grow, so that is an uninsurable financial setback.

This season has already been something different for every farmer. When the machinery is done rolling this fall, we will begin to understand the total extent of our rainfall being more than ten minutes too late.

For information on farm management under drought conditions, contact Wayne Pike, Riverland Community College farm management instructor at wcpike@myclearwave.net or by phone at 507-251-1937.

For extensive information on this drought and much more, go to the NOAA web site at www.ngdc.noaa.gov.

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