LINCOLN — In times like these, a Nebraska farmer can be really grateful for his center pivot — and for the Ogallala Aquifer that feeds it.
After nearly two weeks without rain, less-blessed farmers throughout the Corn Belt are looking to the skies with increased anxiety. Their corn crops are at a crucial point when high temperatures and drought could thwart pollination. That could mean a harvest of empty cobs.
“We've got to have some rain this weekend,” Darrel McAlexander, a dryland corn farmer near Hamburg, Iowa, said Thursday. “We need a substantial rain, where everybody gets it and not just these pop-up showers. If we could get a general 2- or 3-inch rain this weekend, we could still raise some corn. If we don't get rain, the crop will be very short.”
The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor maps have shown an ominous spread of moderate to severe drought through the heart of corn country. Some national observers are drawing comparisons to a dry period in 1988 that is said to have cost agriculture billions.
Already corn prices have climbed 30 percent in the past two weeks. Corn for December delivery crossed the $7 per bushel mark at the Chicago Board of Trade on Thursday.
That's the highest level since last June and considerably more than the $4.20 to $5 per bushel range earlier projected for this year's crop by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sheltered from the drought's full brunt by their reliance on water from the ground, instead of the sky, some of Nebraska's farmers may be in position to benefit from those higher prices.
About two-thirds of the state's corn crop is irrigated, said agricultural statistician Scott Keller of the National Agricultural Statistics Service's Lincoln field office.
Only a negligible amount of Iowa's cropland — less than 1 percent — is irrigated. The state typically gets more rain than Nebraska, has soil that holds moisture better and lacks Nebraska's easy access to groundwater.
“Overall, the corn crop under irrigation looks good,” said Brandon Hunnicutt, an irrigated corn grower who farms near Giltner, Neb., with his father and brother. “We won't be impacted as some of the places.”
Strong prices should offset the added expense of running the pivot — powered by diesel, natural gas or electricity — for more hours during this growing season, he said. The additional energy cost is small compared with the money already spent for fertilizer and seed, he said.
But even an irrigated farmer has cause to worry about the weather. Prolonged heat and humidity stress even irrigated corn, Hunnicutt said, cutting into anticipated yields.
The USDA rated 56 percent of Nebraska's corn as in good to excellent condition, well below the average of 80 percent for this time of year.
In Iowa, 62 percent of the corn crop is in good to excellent condition, compared with an average of 72 percent. In both states, corn is maturing about two weeks ahead of schedule because of the warm spring and summer.
Up until this week, timely rains enabled many eastern Nebraska dryland farmers to duck the full impact of drought, said Carl Sousek, who farms near Prague, Neb. He'd love to be an irrigated farmer, he said, but his farm is in an area where it's tough even to find a well sufficient for household use.
A week ago, his neighbor three miles to the north got an inch of rain. Sousek didn't see a drop at his place.
“We're living on borrowed time,” he said.
Dave Miller, an Iowa Farm Bureau official who farms in Lucas County, Iowa, said this summer reminds him of the 1980 drought. He was then farming in northern Missouri, he said. On July 1 of that year, his corn looked on track to producer a bumper crop. By July 15, it had all fizzled. His final yield was less than one bushel per acre.
“Massive pollination failure,” he said. “We ended up with a cob a foot long and not a kernel on it. I have had the experience of what can happen in a 15-day period — going from a good crop to nothing.”
Miller said comparisons are being drawn to the 1988 drought because that event resulted in widespread yield loss across the Corn Belt. But he believes Iowa so far seems better off than in 1988, partly because of timely rains, but also because of new drought-tolerant corn varieties and tillage techniques designed to minimize moisture loss.
McAlexander said farmers in his area are watching with interest neighbors who planted genetically modified drought-resistant corn this year.
The farmers interviewed described several strategies they will use to cope with the drought. They're looking to their soybeans, which can put on a good yield if they get timely rains in August. They expect to harvest at least some corn, even if not as much as they anticipated at planting time. If necessary, they will file claims on their crop insurance, which guarantees them a percentage of their annual crop. Crop insurance won't give them a profit, they say, but it will keep them from going broke.
However, the reverberations off the farm could continue for the next few years, Miller said. A short yield would push up prices for livestock feed and ethanol. That would pinch slaughter facilities, grain elevators, food processors and other agriculture-related businesses.
Next year, grocery store shoppers likely would see higher prices for meat, eggs and dairy products.
“They will not show up immediately, but yes, there will be feed-through consequences,” Miller said.
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