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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Corn crops withering

Drought has many Kansas farmers cutting corn for feed

BY DAN VOORHIS AND OLIVIA BURRESS
The Wichita Eagle

After more than two months of scant rain and triple-digit heat, many Kansas farmers have given up on their corn, cutting it for cattle feed, say farmers and extension agents.

Plentiful spring rains stopped around May 1.

Other fall crops, such as soybeans and grain sorghum, are more resilient, say farmers, although the crisis point for those is coming within the next week or two unless more rain moves through the region.

It’s not just Kansas suffering. Farms in the traditional Midwest, including Indiana and Illinois, and even the South are seeing fields of corn wither in dry, hot weather.

Irrigated fields appear to be doing well, while dryland fields are hurting to a greater or lesser extent. For dryland corn, the big difference is between short-season varieties, which pollinate and develop earlier, and long-developing varieties, which pollinate later, but have higher potential yields.

Farmers who planted short-season corn largely saw their corn pollinate before the drought started to bite. Their corn will produce something although the plants are struggling to find the moisture to fill out the kernels.

Farmers who planted late-season corn ran into more serious trouble. The intense heat and drought reduced the amount of pollen a corn plant emits and damaged the corn silk, which receives the pollen.

Butler County farmer Ben McClure’s early season corn has done OK. But his later-season corn has struggled. Some has pollinated, some hasn’t.

He’s starting to cut some of it for silage to feed to cattle, he said.

“We’re struggling,” McClure said of his late-season corn. “Things are starting to burn up. … Every day it gets a little worse and worse.”

The US Department of Agriculture reports that, as of last weekend, 43 percent of the state’s corn crop was poor or very poor, 38 percent was fair, 18 percent was good, and just 1 percent was rated excellent.

The state’s soil is drying out fast. The USDA reported the percentage of topsoil rated as having adequate moisture fell from 19 percent two weeks ago to 12 percent last week.

It’s a common story across the country. The 82 Kansas counties named as disaster areas by the USDA this week are part of 1,016 affected counties across the nation. The disaster declaration allows farmers and ranchers to get low-interest loans through the Farm Services Agency.

The markets have recognized the increasingly severe crisis. Corn futures prices have risen from about $5.25 a bushel in mid-June to about $7.40 now. Local cash prices range from about $7.10 to $7.60.

Not all farmers are facing crop failure. There is tremendous variation, said Sue Schulte, spokeswoman for the Kansas Corn Commission.

Some areas received rain at critical times. In bone dry southwest Kansas, the Dodge City area recently got an inch and a half of rain, although it may be too late to help any dryland corn there, she said.

“But in east central, where we’re located, we’re in pretty rough shape,” she said. “It was starting to pollinate when it got too hot and dry. A lot of growers are already chopping it for silage.”

Bob Hay, a farmer near Haysville, said his irrigated corn could yield 190 bushels per acre, down from more than 200 bushels per acre last year, but still good.

His dryland short-season corn pollinated and is producing ears, but a combination of insects in the spring and heat in the summer is taking its toll. The kernels will be small and shriveled, or missing entirely. Instead of hundreds of kernels there could be dozens.

“We’ve got trouble,” he said.

He estimated his dryland corn crop ultimately will produce 40 to 80 bushels per acre.

In Mitchell County, in the north-central part of the state, conditions are similar, said Post Rock district extension agent Scott Chapman.

“I talked to some guys who said some of their corn down by a creek looks pretty good,” he said. “So, it’s not 100 percent burned up, but every day that percentage goes up.”

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