Crops suffer, farmers’ optimism withers as drought continues

Several consecutive weeks of temperatures nearing triple digits plus no rain equals trouble for farmers in the Vermillion area.

Kevin Myron, owner of Ag Opportunities in Vermillion, hasn't personally been inspecting area corn fields, but he's hearing reports from the farmers who have planted them.

A farmer’s attempt to bale straw Tuesday afternoon in a field approximately 12 miles north of Vermillion was interrupted when the straw and surrounding stubble caught on fire. No significant precipitation has fallen in the Vermillion area for four weeks. Fortunately, the Vermillion Fire Department was able to quickly contain and extinguish the flames in this very dry field. (Photo by David Lias)

The news isn't good.

"I'm just hearing comments from farmers. I think we missed out on a rain last Thursday or Friday (July 12-13) and that's probably about the point that the crops flipped," Myron said. "We're losing bushels every day now that we do not get a rain."

According to data compiled last week by the USDA and the National Drought Mitigation Center, the Vermillion area, along with much of southeastern South Dakota, was experiencing "moderate" drought conditions as of July 10.

No rain has fallen since, and temperatures have remained hot, climbing into the 90s and at times exceeding 100 degrees.

Those continued dry and hot conditions have had a detrimental effect on crops over South Dakota as well as much of the nation, including nearly all the Corn Belt.  According to the US Drought Monitor, all of South Dakota could be categorized as "abnormally dry" as of last week.

The Vermillion area, along with a large portion of southeast South Dakota, is described to be experiencing moderate drought. Areas farther west in the state are in a severe drought because of dry conditions this year and last fall.

According to climatologists with the National Weather Service, no improvement in these conditions is likely to occur in the near term.

"The unfortunate part of that is this is following a short crop last year," Myron said. "Due to all of the flooding, and then it got kind of hot last July, and then we had a little bit of an early frost – all kinds of things hit us last year.

"Our beans were about a third of the normal volume, and corn was a little less than half," he said. "We may be shaping up to see that exact same thing again."

"Conditions since the spring have been somewhat dry over most of the state. Most problems have worsened recently with a lack of precipitation over the last 30 to 60 days," said Dennis Todey, SDSU Extension state climatologist.

He noted that the 30-day total precipitation and percent of average precipitation from average show that most of the state has received less than 50 percent of average precipitation during that time period.

Several weather stations in the southeast part of the state were the driest or top 10 driest during the month of June based on over 100 years of records.

"A major driver of this drought has been temperatures, which have been running consistently warm since the spring and winter," Todey said. "Increased temperatures have increased plant water use and exhausted limited soil moisture reserves. The last 30 days has continued this trend being 4 to 8 degrees above average across the state."

Most of the state has set records for overall temperatures since March and since the beginning of the calendar year.

At first glance, while taking a drive through the country in Clay County, crops appear to be faring well.

"Fields still look very good; they still look green," Myron said. "But anything on sand, or on hillier areas – I'm hearing that crops there are already yellowing. An other issue will be how hot will it be when the plant actually goes through pollination. We could end up with a bunch of nubs on plants with no kernels.

"That's the fear here, and it looks like fear is turning to reality," he said. "We have maybe a 30 percent chance of rain forecast this week, but when it's this dry, it just seems like you can't generate any rain."

Larry Wagner, an agronomy crops fields specialist from the Sioux Falls regional Extension office, said if the current hot and dry weather trends continue, nearly all of the South Dakota's corn crop will be affected.

"It's kind of spotty … I know up in the Flandreau area, there is a small section of South Dakota that is about an inch ahead of normal (in precipitation), and the crops around there look quite good."

Wagner spent time Tuesday taking photos of crops in Lincoln County. "Even in the marginal areas that aren't quite as bad, you're starting to see a real difference in the water holding capacity of different soils."

Conditions appear to become dryer the farther south one travels in the state, he said.

"Down in Bon Homme County, and in those areas, for the most part, farmers are starting to actively look at and some have even actively begun to harvest corn for silage," Wagner said. "When you see that, you know it's gotten to a point where they don't see getting enough grain from the crop to make any difference, and they are going to salvage it for their cattle."

In some of the cornfields Wagner visited near Canton Tuesday, the corn has tassled, but there are no ears.

As of July 15, he said, the USDA's National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS) surprisingly indicated that throughout the entire state, about 33 percent of the corn crop was described as being in good condition.

"There are some areas from Sioux Falls on north that are good," Wagner said. "There are a few places, depending on the soil and the field management, no till, all those sorts of things put together with a couple timely rains, that are probably in excellent condition, but that's not much of the territory."

According to the NASS, in fact, only 4 percent of the state's corn crop could be described as in excellent condition as of July 15. Thirty six percent of the crop was deemed to be in fair condition. One-fifth of the state's crop is described as in poor condition, with 7 percent in very poor condition.

 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center's 8- to 14-day outlooks continue the recent trend of likely warmer and drier conditions. Current data show a strong likelihood for warmer than average conditions to continue throughout the balance of July. Similarly precipitation is more likely to be below average through the month.

The combination leads to continued and likely some worsening of drought conditions not only in South Dakota, but across much of the middle part of the country.

The NASS statistics prove to be a grim indicator of the toll that hot, dry weather is having on the state's corn crop. Wagner said that on July 1, 68 percent of the state's crop was rated good to excellent. By July 8, 60 percent of the crop received that rating.

"And then in one week – this week – it dropped from 60 percent good to excellent down to that 35 percent," he said. "If it doesn't rain, that trend is probably going to level off a little bit."

"We're clicking onto four weeks now without any measureable precipitation," Myron said. "A few of the fringe areas around us have gotten a little bit, but right here in Vermillion, we've missed all of the rain. A lot of the farmers are comparing this to the summer of '88."

Farmers also must keep an eye out for alflatoxin, a disease that may develop in stressed corn plants.

"Basically, it's dangerous to dairy cattle, young animals, poultry, things like that," Myron said, "which are a lot of the markets that our ethanol plants sell their byproducts to. I have my fingers crossed that we aren't going to be dealing with that, but these are the exact type of conditions that bring that about."

Insurance will likely provide some financial relief to local farmers should their crops wither in the prolonged drought. But people who depend on those farmers' crops for their livelihood – ranging from ethanol plants and livestock producers, to people like Myron – will be more directly affected.

"The people in the second tier – people like us and the people who sell the chemicals and the fertilizer and the machinery and all of those types of things – there's nothing to protect them," Myron said, "and all of a sudden we're facing two short crop years.

"Usually, these things cycle. One year you'll have a short crop, and the next year, you'll have a normal crop, and the year after that, you may have an above-average crop," he said. "It looks like we're looking at two years in a row of a short crop, and that's a bit tough."

Adding to the disappointment is the strong sense of hope most area farmers enjoyed after spring ushered in perfect conditions for quick field preparation and planting.

"We got off to an awesome start," Myron said. "Because of the planting problems last year, everybody was ready to jump in and get into the fields. We got a couple rains after that, and everything was looking just great.

"And as far as the mood in the farming community," he said, "everybody sort of let out a big sigh of relief … but then, the rain quit falling."

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