Long, hot days and little moisture is not the combination that crop farmers want to see right now. As Nebraska moves further into the drought, farmers across the state brace themselves for the worst.
According to the Nebraska Weather and Crops report released by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Nebraska Field Office on July 23, “Ongoing drought conditions coupled with above normal temperatures continued to take a toll on dryland crops.”
The report continued, “Temperatures increased from last week and ranged from 8 degrees above normal in the North Central District to 5 degrees above normal across the remainder of the state. Highs reached triple digits in all areas of the state and lows were recorded in the upper 50s. Areas across the North Central and Central Districts received measureable rainfall with a few locations accumulating over one inch. However, much of the state saw little to no precipitation.”
The corn crop is beginning to show signs of stress, and many farmers are worried about the potential loss they will be facing.
“In a lot of situations you can see the problems visually. Every year is different in some aspect. We farm at the mercy of mother nature. We have had some exceptionally good runs here in weather, production and price. This year has reminded us that things can change fairly quickly. There has been a significant change in 45 days this year,” said Don Hutchens, Executive Director, Nebraska Corn Board.
Nebraska is lucky compared to other states. “In Nebraska we are fortunate because nearly 70 percent of our corn production is from irrigated fields so we are more stable,” he said.
He continued, “Irrigation is home in Nebraska development. It has provided a huge investment not just to agriculture, but the whole economy. That helps us have a lot of corn, ethanol and cattle production in the state. It all feeds off one another.”
Even with irrigation, the crop itself is deteriorating. Those who have dryland corn are really struggling, however. Corn conditions declined and rated 14 percent very poor, 19 percent poor, 30 percent fair, 32 percent good, and five percent excellent, well below last year’s 80 percent good to excellent and 79 percent average. Irrigated corn conditions rated 57 percent good to excellent, and dryland corn rated just nine percent in the same categories.
“If you are a dryland farmer, you are in bad shape and banking on federal crop insurance. If you are irrigated, the additional work you put in will pay significant dividends,” said Hutchens.
According to the report, “Irrigators were struggling with water demands and in some cases more water has been used to date than a full season would require.”
This has forced some users to be shut off from their surface water rights. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources has issued more than 1,100 shut-off notices to farmers across the state.
“We are unsure how many total acres are being shut off, and what impact it will have on crops at this point. It will really depend upon how early the corn was planted, and what stage it was in now. It obviously is not a good situation if you have been irrigating and now the water is not available,” Hutchens said.
According to the crops and weather report, corn silked was at 88 percent, compared to 62 percent last year and over one week ahead of the 66 percent average. Corn in the dough stage was 25 percent, compared to 5 percent last year and average. Corn in the dent stage was 2 percent, compared to 0 percent last year and average.
“Water consumption will start dropping off after the corn is filled. Most of the crop is still in the stage where it needs considerable moisture every day. We have a substantial root structure this year as the plants look for moisture,” Hutchens said.
He continued, “No till planting this year was a big advantage. If you didn’t upset the cover and work the ground, you preserved a lot of the top soil moisture, and that’s helping now. Anytime you can save a trip over the ground you are saving expenses, and you are protecting that newly planted crop from wind erosion and obviously not opening that soil up for evaporation.”
Irrigated farmers are still looking to produce a crop, although it will be smaller than last year. Many dryland farmers are looking to cut their losses now. “With pastures and forage supplies short, corn acres have begun being chopped for silage or cut for hay,” the crops and weather report said.
Hutchens agreed, “There has been some that have cut the corn for silage. However, farmers need to check with their insurance providers to make sure they are following regulations.”
The lower forecast for corn coupled with the drought has skyrocketed the price for corn. As of mid-day on Thursday, July 26, corn was trading for $7.86/bu. In the last week it has traded as high as $8.28/bu.
“The unique thing is that in early June all of us were anticipating the potential for a record crop. Within 45 days, we saw the quality of the crop diminish extensively and we saw commodity prices hitting some new highs. What we have to realize for all of us, whether in production of corn or as an end user of corn, using risk management tools are always a good opportunity to protect our investment,” stated Hutchens.
He continued, “In early June the opportunity to lock in prices were there. If you were an end user of corn, you wish you would have done that. There were a lot of farmers who anticipated this large crop who forward contracted corn and soybeans. There are probably a lot of farmers who are upset about marketing too early now, and a lot of end users who wished they would have locked in prices.”
The increased price for corn will have an effect on the livestock and ethanol markets. Many cattle feeders are already looking for alternative products, and ethanol production has decreased, with some plants temporarily shut down.
Internationally, many other countries are also worried about the decreased U.S. corn crop. “There is a strong demand for any form of livestock feed, both domestically and internationally. In some places, they have cut back on poultry production because of the cost of commodities. They want to make sure the U.S. is a consistent supplier. However, if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, we can’t do much about it,” he said.
Corn is not the only crop that is struggling. “Everything is in drought. Wheat escaped this because it was harvested in late June, but for those planting again this fall, they want to see moisture as well,” Hutchens said.
Soybeans are also showing stress from lack of moisture. The soybean crop is setting pods right now, which is a key time in the plants production cycle.
Soybeans blooming were 82 percent complete, ahead of 58 percent last year and 12 days ahead of the 61 percent average. Soybeans setting pods was 27 percent, ahead of 14 percent last year and 16 percent average. Soybean conditions declined and rated 10 percent very poor, 22 percent poor, 40 percent fair, 26 percent good, and 2 percent excellent, well below last year’s 78 percent good to excellent and 77 percent average, according to the crops and weather report.
Sorghum headed was 19 percent, ahead of seven percent last year and six percent average. Sorghum conditions rated 11 percent very poor, 20 percent poor, 42 percent fair, 26 percent good, and one percent excellent, well below last year’s 81 percent good to excellent and 77 percent average.
The second cutting of alfalfa was 93 percent complete, well ahead of 71 percent last year and 75 percent average. The third cutting of alfalfa was 46 percent complete compared to two percent last year and three percent average. Alfalfa conditions declined and rated 33 percent very poor, 30 percent poor, 23 percent fair, 13 percent good, and one percent excellent, well below 83 percent good to excellent last year and 74 percent average.
“Will rain at this point save the crops? Not to the full extent. It will do it some good though. We want to see moisture to help replenish the soil,” said Hutchens. “No one wants to think about the impacts if this is a multiyear drought.” ❖
“In Nebraska we are fortunate because nearly 70 percent of our corn production is from irrigated fields so we are more stable.”
~ Don Hutchens