Story & Photos by Mary Jane Bruce Lincoln, Neb.

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September 29, 2012
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Widespread drought forces an early harvest

It’s a crisp, cool morning and the sunshine is so bright it’s almost blinding. On a farm near the town of Raymond in eastern Nebraska, it’s peaceful. Instead of the roar of a tractor or combine, there’s just the sound of the wind blowing across the fields. In a few hours, vehicle traffic will be heavy on the gravel road that passes the farm. It’s game day in Lincoln and Husker fans lucky enough to have tickets will be making the trek to Memorial Stadium. Around here, fall means football and harvest.

It feels like September but the harvest calendar is upside down.

David Grimes zips up his jacket against the wind and surveys his fields. He finished harvesting corn about 10 days ago. Last year at this time, he hadn’t even started. As a dry land farmer with no irrigation, Grimes relies on rain. This summer, Mother Nature was remarkably stingy with precipitation.

“We had a warm spring and I planted a little early,” said Grimes. “We had some rain in April, May and June and then nothing in July and August.”

Even without the rain, Grimes said his crop was better than he expected and he won’t have to collect on his crop insurance. But the numbers are down. Grimes harvested a little over 100 bushels per acre, about 30 bushels below average. He’ll start harvesting soybeans soon and he expects that crop to be about half the average yield.

Grimes has been farming for 35 years so, like most farmers, he’s philosophical about the cyclical nature of his chosen profession.

“You never look forward to a bad, short season. You just deal with it when it comes,” Grimes said. “But I’m hoping for rain this fall and snow in the winter. Any kind of precipitation will be welcome.”

Heat and drought conditions have been the common thread in stories told by farmers across Nebraska this year. Harvest is well ahead of schedule on a corn crop that is predicted to be the lowest since 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Nebraska Field Office. NASS predicts the soybean crop will be the lowest since 2002.

Grimes’ crop was helped by getting the crop in early and using no-till farming methods. By not tilling the soil and keeping the residue, the crop is allowed to conserve much needed moisture. A day of rain recently helped recharge the ground a little bit but much more rain is needed. Grimes said it’s clear there is little sub-soil moisture.

“There are still big cracks in the ground and the leaves in the trees are yellow. That’s the barometer that indicates subsoil moisture is low,” he said. “We need that fall and winter precipitation.”

This year’s harvest is really the story of two crops: dryland operations, like the crop on the Grimes farm, and irrigated land.

Steve Nelson farms on mostly irrigated land in south central Nebraska, near Axtell. Nelson said harvest of seed corn has been underway for about a month and the commercial corn harvest is just beginning. His soybean harvest is nearly complete. Nelson said yields for seed corn and soybeans have been good.

Nelson is also president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau. He travels the state attending county meetings and hears from farmers dealing with the drought and heat. The stories cover a wide range of conditions.

“From one end of the state to the other, we hear about how the drought has affected crops,” Nelson said. “In non-irrigated parts of the state, some corn fields are making nothing. Farmers harvest them for hay or silage. In irrigated parts of the state, yields are pretty good but it’s taken a lot of water. It’s certainly the longest irrigation season I’ve seen my farming career.”

Statistics from NASS back up the anecdotal reports of an early harvest and yields that run the gamut from feast to famine. By mid-September, corn harvest was about one fourth complete, compared to 2 percent this time last year. Corn maturity was estimated at 74 percent, compared to 18 percent last year and 17 days ahead of the 25 percent five year average. Soybean harvest had started on rapidly maturing fields.

As Nelson reported, drought conditions have had an impact on both crop quality and quantity. Overall, NASS rated 42 percent of the corn crop poor or very poor, 25 percent fair, 29 percent good and 4 percent excellent. That’s well below last year’s rating of 75 percent good to excellent. Irrigated corn conditions rated 54 percent good to excellent compared to 4 percent for dryland corn.

The heat and drought is even more of a challenge for livestock producers.

Sherry Nelson raises cattle with her husband, Chris, near Whitman, Neb. Chris Vinton is the fifth generation of his family to raise cattle and the Vinton’s two grown children and their spouses are part of the family business.

None of the Vinton’s have seen conditions like this before.

Sherry Vinton calls it the “summer of no green.” Side-by-side pictures of her land bear out that description: rolling hills of pasture that are green in previous years stayed brown this summer. Vinton believes the drought of 2012 surpassed the drought conditions of the 1950s and brings to mind the 1930s Dust Bowl.

This year, spring rains were promising at first. Then on May 20, Vinton said it was as if someone flipped a switch.

“We’ve had less than 1-inch of rain since then,” Vinton said. “It’s the most severe drought we’ve ever experienced. Some people are calling it a flash drought because it came on so fast and was so hot. And it’s created a desperate situation for feed availability.”

Feed production is down and it’s expensive to acquire feed, because the drought is so widespread. Because the drought has taken its toll everywhere, it’s also hard to simply move the herd to greener pastures. Alternatives are limited. Ranchers are turning to farmers who have chopped silage or fields of corn stalks for grazing. They are also reducing the number of cattle, culling the herd to keep only the best and most productive animals.

Like everyone else dealing with drought conditions, Vinton is hoping for beneficial fall rains and an adequate, but not too heavy amount of snow in the winter. Too much snow and cold temperatures would further increase the requirement for already scarce feed.

“Bottom line: it’s going to be an expensive winter,” said Vinton.

Like Grimes, Vinton takes the cycles of nature in stride.

“From the time they’re in diapers, every child on the ranch is taught that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. So you plan for drought and you deal with it when it comes,” Vinton said. “But I am concerned about the younger generation of ranchers.”

With years of experience under their belts, the Vintons have financial reserves that help them survive the bad years and enjoy the good ones. Younger ranchers may be more vulnerable.

The drought has also brought attention to an issue all Nebraska producers agree on: the importance of passing the farm bill. Nelson said provisions in the bill would be helpful to livestock producers. He said getting a farm bill passed would also provide much needed certainty for Nebraska producers so they know what’s on the books and can plan accordingly.

But Nelson is also sure that Nebraska farmers and ranchers are resilient and will survive what is handed to them.

“Whether it’s no water this year or too much rain and flooding last year, we’re used to the extremes,” Nelson said. “It’s one of the things I’ve noticed at the county meetings I’ve attended. In spite of tough conditions, I continue to hear that positive spirit. They May not like it but they’ll find a way through it.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Sep 29, 2012 04:00AM Published Oct 29, 2012 10:30AM Copyright 2012 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.