Drought 2012: What it means for Morrow County
By Randa Wagner –
This year will be remembered for many reasons: the Olympic games, the fall of a sports icon, and a massacre in a movie theater. It will also be remembered for the drought.
A record amount of corn was planted in the country this year — 96.4 million acres — and farmers were exultant. Then it got hot… and stopped raining.
As of August 9, a full one-third of the continental U.S. was in extreme or exceptional drought, including 69% of Iowa, 81% of Illinois and 94% of Missouri. On August 1, more than half of all U.S. counties (1,584 in 32 states) were designated primary disaster areas for this growing season, according to the USDA.
At that time the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported nearly half of the U.S. corn crop was rated poor to very poor, 37% of soybeans were also rated poor and nearly three-quarters of U.S. Cattle acreage is in drought-affected areas. This prompted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on July 26 to open up 3.8 million acres of conservation land for ranchers to use for pastorage.
Where does this leave Morrow County and central Ohio?
How Morrow County farmers are doing as a whole depend partly on when their crops were planted, Morrow County OSU Extension Agent Jeff McCutcheon said Friday.
“Pollination is the critical time,” he explained. “I’ve had some discussions with farmers about making silage if it was planted late or there are other issues. If it was pollinated at the time when it was hot and dry, there’s not much ear.”
Morrow County farmer Anthony Bush, who is also vice president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Grower’s Association, put his corn in May 5.
“I chose not to go out real early,” he said in an interview July 12. “It was cold when guys were planting and I just didn’t think planting corn in my Carharts was the right thing to do. Guys did it, it looked good early on and it’s tasseled out. It might be okay. Time will tell.”
He said corn planted May 5 should have tasseled out in mid-July. In the case of the field that bordered his yard, the tasseling was sporadic, and Bush pointed out a lot of the tasseling that was visible was over the tile string.
At that time, north central Ohio needed almost 5 inches of rain just to get it out of drought condition, and central Ohio needed 7.5 inches.
“So much depends on the weather,” McCutcheon said. “Last fall things didn’t dry down fast enough because it was wet and we didn’t have the sunlight. Last year was wetter than normal and this year was drier than normal. I’ve been in Ohio 17 years and they keep telling me ‘in a normal year…” I haven’t seen it!”
Don’t be fooled by the hundreds of rows of green stalks and golden tassels atop them as you drive through the countryside.
“Some of the corn that has tassled has no ear under it to pollinate,” Bush explained. “The tassel shoot, ear shoots and silks – each silk is attached to what eventually becomes a kernel of corn. The pollen comes down from the tassle and fertilizes the silk to make a kernel. If there’s no silk for the pollen from the tassel to fertilize, you’ve got nothing.”
And what does it take to get the silk?
Bush said the plants will do everything they can to produce an ear: they will even ‘cannibalize’ themselves to get the nutrients out of themselves to get those nutrients, mostly from the stalk.
“That results in problems with stalk quality,” Bush said. “In the fall, you might have produced an ear, but the stalk has no strength left and it will fall right over.”
Mid-July was the critical make-or-break period for corn and soybeans weren’t far behind when rain returned to parts of Ohio. For some areas outside Ohio, it was too little too late.
“There are areas in southern Illinois where they’re already tearing up the corn,” Bush said at the time. “The insurance adjusters have been out and there’s no point in harvesting. Once that happens and it’s determined it’s a total loss, there’s no point in leaving it out there to continue drawing the nutrients out of the ground. Till it under.”
Even for some parts of Ohio, the rain didn’t come soon enough.
McCutcheon said information from other counties and some crop adjusters are assessing 25 bushels an acre, when the average is 150+.
“We’re not there,” said McCutcheon of Morrow County. “Those rare stories I hear might be a field that was challenged anyway.” Where a field might have had drainage or fertility issues, the stress of the drought just pushes the crop ‘over the top.’
“If we hadn’t gotten the rain, the stalks would be drying out and making silage would be difficult,” McCutcheon said. “You need moisture to make silage and, depending on the silo or storage method, you need some moisture to allow silage to ferment. Silage requires stalks that are still green.”
Silage is cut, chopped and dried down to determine how much water is in it because, ideally, a stalk should be 80 percent water while the stalk is developing.
The quality and condition of the corn won’t be known until it’s harvested, but there’s two methods of determining quality and yield, McCutcheon explained. One is to measure a section of a row and count the number of ears, then every so many ears you count the number of rows on the ear. The other, more accurate method is to take 1/1000 of an acre and hand-shell the ears and weigh the kernels.
“We’ve been dry, and probably the biggest crop this year that’s been affected is hay and pasture,” McCutcheon said. “The second and third hay cutting are greatly reduced. A third cutting may produce only a tenth of what the grower usually gets.”
Forage crops like cooler weather and more consistent rain, he explained. Ninety-five degree weather has a tendency to shut it down. With poor hay cuttings and dry pastures, cattle producers are forced to turn to grain to fill the need for feed. Grain prices are up already because local prices are based on prices at the Chicago Board of Trade, which bases its prices on what happens in Iowa and Illinois. Given the gloomy crop forecast in those states, local producers benefit.
“Marketing-wise, the ideal situation for local farmers is to have an abundant year here with a drought in Iowa and Illinois,” McCutcheon said. “The markets in Chicago look at the top producing areas in the country – which are Iowa and Illinois – and base everything off of that. Weather events in those areas will move the market.”
“Nationwide, we planted 5% more corn acres this year than last year – almost a record number of corn acres,” Bush said. “Minnesota – the Dakotas, most of Iowa and Nebraska are all in pretty good shape. The yield is hurt nationwide — there’s no denying that, but it may not be all doom and gloom.”
Ohio isn’t where Illinois and Indiana are with the drought.
“We’re really just on the edge of it,” McCutcheon said. “If you go toward Marion County there are some field in the western part that didn’t get the rain and look different than the rest of the county.”
Can soil come back after a couple of years of drought?
“That’s where a good fertility and crop rotation program come in,” Bush said. “That’s a management (issue.) There are some things you can’t control but some that you can. Skimping on your fertility program in a dry year is not always the wise thing to do. Producers might do that to save money. It’s an individual situation.”
Bush, who also has beans and wheat planted, said soybeans entered a critical stage in mid-July as well with their reproductive stage, when they need to start making pods — and need rain to fill their pods.
“Soybeans have defense mechanisms built into them for heat ‚” he said. “They’ll flip their leaves over – the lighter side of the leaf reflects some of the heat off. They’re a very resilient plant.”
He also noted when you see corn all rolled up real tight, that’s also a defense mechanism. “It’s just trying to protect itself.”
A corn plant will set its tap roots down several inches, depending on soil conditions, to pull everything from the soil they can and keep reaching for water. Bush said tillage practices can affect a root’s ability to get what it needs from the soil.
“If there’s a hard pan under there, the root can’t get through – every field and soil type is different,” he explained. “It depends on your tillage practices over the years. The more heavy passes you’ve made over that field, the more compacted your soil might be. No-till farming and other variables can affect the soil. Compaction is something I pay a lot of attention to around here. I try to eliminate unnecessary driving across my fields.”
How all this affects all of us
Food prices –
Economists reported in late July higher corn prices will affect 75% of what’s sold in the market. Milk and cheese prices could go up as much as 6%. Beef may be cheaper short term because many ranchers are selling early. But next summer when there’s a shortage – expect to pay more. Beef that’s $4 a pound now could easily be $5–6 a pounds next year.
Beef cattle eat corn; hogs eat corn; so do chickens and dairy cattle. Corn oil is produced from field corn. Plastics and rubber products use corn in their production. Effects from the drought could result in above normal food price inflation in 2012 and 2013.
Forty percent of last year’s corn crop went for ethanol. Aside from that situation, rivers and lakes are at near-record lows as the heat takes its toll through evaporation. The Mississippi River, a major shipping lane for the U.S., was 12-feet below normal in late July, causing many vessels to stay on interior lanes, which caused major traffic backups. Time is money, and shipping costs are affected.
The record temperatures this year have had a significant effect on livestock and pets. Thousands of fish died in the Midwest as rivers dried up and water temperatures climbed to nearly 100 degrees in some places. About 40,000 shovelnose sturgeon were killed in Iowa when water temperatures reached 97 degrees. Thousands of dead sturgeon, catfish, carp, and other species in the Lower Platte River were spotted by fishermen.
The drought is affecting honeybees, since flowers are drying up and there’s not enough pollen. Less pollination affects not only the supply of honey, but also the price. Maple syrup makers are struggling with trees shriveling from the heat.
Nationally, there have been reports of insect swarms coming into buildings and homes seeking relief from the heat. Increased insect activity has also resulted in crop damage.
Water supplies –
Reservoirs and ponds are at dangerously low levels and water restrictions have been enforced in some areas. Though many parts of Ohio has had several rainfalls in the past month, the state is still below normal. In some parts of the country, entire reservoirs and lakes are now gone.
Where does this leave things?
“It leaves things at the hand of mother nature, as always,” Bush said. “We’ve done all we can – it just depends on the weather now. The yield is hurt. There’s no way around that but how much it’s hurt depends in the weather from here on out. A farmer is at the mercy of the elements: you can’t control the weather. Might as well worry about the things you can control.”