LINCOLN — Look at the latest drought map of Nebraska.
Look for the bright red splotch that spills out of the Panhandle, crosses the Sand Hills and covers the state's southwest.
That's where farmer Don Holen of Bertrand lives. It's land laced with irrigation canals and dotted with green circles of corn under center-pivot irrigation. It's also a place on the edge of a silent, creeping storm of dry earth, stunted crops and baked pastures known as extreme drought.
“Take a spade to dig, and it's like going into concrete,'' Holen said. “We are really, really dry.''
While drought conditions in Nebraska are somewhat better than they were last year, rain has remained scarce across the countryside where Holen farms. He measured a total of 43/100ths of an inch from three rainstorms during June and July.
Most of western Nebraska — including Holen's farmland south of Elwood and Smithfield in Gosper County — is in extreme to exceptional drought. The zones of deep drought cover a third of the state.
Statewide, 70 percent of Nebraska is in severe to exceptional drought, according to a National Drought Mitigation Center map released Thursday.
Even relatively wet eastern Nebraska is feeling drought's pinch. The southeast corner of the state — including Omaha and Lincoln, and a string of counties along the Missouri River north nearly to South Sioux City — is abnormally dry.
Weeks of spotty rainfall have done little to improve declining crop and pasture conditions in major dryland counties of eastern Nebraska, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department's National Agricultural Statistics Service in Lincoln.
Omaha and Lincoln residents who have experienced a summer of periodic rains probably aren't aware of how different the weather has been in drought-choked western Nebraska, said Al Dutcher, state climatologist.
“The lack of subsoil moisture — a residual of last year's drought — made it almost impossible to grow dryland crops from the Republican River Valley north through south-central Nebraska and up into west-central areas,” he said Thursday.
Still, conditions are far better than they were 12 months ago when farmers across Nebraska cut thousands of acres of nonirrigated corn to salvage the stalks as silage to feed cattle during what turned into the state's hottest and driest year on record.
Although the majority of Nebraska's corn acres are irrigated, about 30 percent are dryland. That means the corn is planted, nurtured and brought to harvest with no water other than rainfall.
Cooler weather and timely rains have been a salvation in Cuming County in the northeast, where at least 80 percent of the cropland is not irrigated, said Larry Howard, the county's extension educator in West Point.
“We really rely on Mother Nature to rain feed our crops,'' he said.
Rainfall in Cuming County was well above average in April through June. There were only 13 days in May when it didn't rain. The tap went dry in July — rainfall was about 50 percent of average — but the county's year-to-date total is still slightly above normal.
Pat Ellis of West Point, a consulting agronomist with Outdoor Agronomics, said August rainfall will determine how well corn ears and soybean pods fill out.
Drought stress, such as curling leaves, is showing up in some Cuming County dryland cornfields, but conditions aren't nearly as dire as in southwest Nebraska. Holen and other farmers there are cutting thousands of acres of burned-out dryland corn for silage.
Bertrand farmer Phil High said he was surprised at how tall his dryland corn grew before lack of water killed it this summer. He is chopping up 1,000 acres of dryland corn across four counties of southwest Nebraska to feed to cattle.
“Our dryland corn was resilient, but it just didn't have enough moisture to finish,'' he said.
Like Holen and High, the majority of Bertrand farmer Isaac Kuck's cropland is irrigated.
“Drought usually doesn't make a huge impact on us,'' he said, “but we're looking at zeros on most of our dryland. Zero bushels per acre.''
Kuck said the only place his dryland corn grew enough to produce a tassel was where terrace channels held a bit of rain.
Dutcher said it will take an incredible amount of precipitation to eradicate the deep deficit of subsoil moisture in southwest Nebraska. In the Sand Hills, where conditions are much better than last year's drought disaster, the grassland still hasn't recovered.
Low flows in the Platte and Elkhorn Rivers are unlikely to improve anytime soon, Dutcher said.
“Even if it rains like a banshee, we won't see higher flows from North Platte through Columbus,'' he said.
Only higher underground water tables along the Platte River will return consistent flows to Nebraska's primary waterway, Dutcher said. Higher flows from the Elkhorn into the Platte west of Omaha are unlikely until the headwaters of the Elkhorn in north-central Nebraska improve from severe drought status.
In Nebraska, the nation's third-largest corn producer, 40 percent of dryland corn rated good to excellent last week, compared to 9 percent last year and 64 percent average.
Irrigated corn rated 63 percent good to excellent last week, compared to 57 percent last year.
In Iowa, abnormally dry conditions expanded farther to the east in the central portion of the state. Drought map makers considered downgrading western Iowa's conditions from abnormally dry to moderate drought. Iowa, where only 1 percent of cropland is irrigated, is the nation's top corn-producing state. Fifty-three percent of Iowa's corn crop was rated good to excellent last week, compared to 23 percent last year.
In south-central Nebraska, Holen, 74, farms in partnership with three sons. Most of their corn is irrigated by underground water pumped through pivots or by water from Lake McConaughy delivered via canals.
“What has water is a beautiful crop,'' he said, “but the dryland corn is only about 2 feet high and falling over. It's shot. All the rain in the world won't do anything for it.''