July 5, 2012

Do or Die Time for Local Crops in Need of Rain

Scattered rain across parts of southern Scotland County brought some much needed temporary relief over the weekend, but left residents in the north thirsting for more precipitation as the drought is entering the devastating stages for farmers.

Rain reports of between 1.5 to 2 inches of precipitation came in from the Bible Grove and Rutledge areas while Memphis and the surrounding areas measured only .1 to .2 inches of rain on Saturday and Sunday.

"I think we have lost one-third of the yield potential on the corn," said Jardin Fuller of J & J Ag in Scotland County whose farm wasn't one of the fortunate ones to receive more than just a sprinkle of rain during the weekend storms. "Give it another week and I think that loss could be doubled."

With a normal output of 160 bushels an acre, by Fuller's estimates, many farmers have seen their production cut to 120 bushels by the drought. At $6 a bushel corn, the drought may have already cost farmers $360 an acre. For a producer with 500 acres, no rain has meant a loss of $180,000 in income, with the potential for even more loss.

The USDA Missouri crop report issued July 2nd revealed high temperatures and little to no precipitation across most of the state took its toll on crops last week as all crops declined in condition. Corn condition rated poor to very poor increased 22 points to 48 percent while soybeans rated poor to very poor increased 14 points to 49 percent.

Topsoil moisture declined to its lowest point this year at 71 percent very short, 26 percent short, and 3 percent adequate. The 5 year average topsoil moisture condition is 4 percent very short, 16 percent short, 59 percent adequate, and 21 percent surplus. Subsoil moisture also declined to 58 percent very short, 35 percent short, and 7 percent adequate.

According to William Wiebold, professor of plant sciences in the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, this year's corn needs rain and needs it soon. He indicated the next couple weeks are critical for corn pollination, because silk growth and tassel pollen-shed must be in sync to create corn kernels. That coordination relies on water.

"Silks are at least 99 percent water, and they use it as the driving force to elongate from inside the husk until they emerge outside the husks, or about 10 inches," said Wiebold. "If the pollen sheds from the tassel and the silks aren't there, no kernels are produced."



Silk growth is only half of the critical pollination process. If the pollen does reach the silk, a tube created by the pollen grain must be able to grow down the silk to where the kernel will be, according to Wiebold. He added that there has to be enough water to keep the corn silk wet enough for the pollen tube to grow through its entire length to reach the ear.

"This coordination process, colloquially called nick, is so important that if dry, hot conditions prevent it, you could see a 30-40 percent yield loss," Wiebold said.

The professor noted that a typical ear will have 12 to 14 rows, each with 35 to 40 potential kernels, he said. Lose just three kernels per row and that's a substantial yield loss.

The lack of rain is having other negative effects on corn. Normally, corn tasseling occurs when plants are 7, maybe 8 feet tall, according to Wiebold. Water pushes that growth.

"There are reports coming from throughout the state that corn is tasseling at 5 1/2 to 6 feet tall," Wiebold said. "That's a couple of feet shorter than normal, and it's because there's wasn't enough water to increase plant cell size."

Corn leaf blades are coming in smaller for the same reason. All these stresses put this season's corn yield in question.

"Probably the next two weeks will really determine what our yield will be," Wiebold said. "Some places that had rain, like northwest Missouri, will see less yield loss. Places like St. Charles County and along the rivers, which have deeper soils with good water-holding capacity, should also experience less yield loss."

Places that have seen little rain, have claypan soils or have compacted soils will experience large yield losses if rain doesn't come soon. A heavy yield hit in the Corn Belt could send ripples through the futures market.

"The Chicago futures market will start calling around to the states to see what the weather is like," Wiebold said. "It's really important and it can drive the market price that farmers will receive."

Less corn produced would mean higher prices, putting pressure on livestock producers who feed corn. At the end of this food chain, consumers could see sticker shock for meat and dairy products.

While the corn situation is critical, soybeans are nearing the do or die point as well.

"Give it another week or 10 days and I figure we could loss 20 bushels an acre on the soybeans," Fuller stated.

With soybean prices at $14 a bushel, the potential loss would be around $280 an acre. That same farmer with 500 acres of beans, would be looking at a loss of $140,000.

"I would say no rain in the next two weeks and the guy with 1,000 acres will be looking at loses of half a million dollars or more," Fuller said.

The problem dates back to a particularly arid spring according to University of Missouri climatologist Pat Guinan with the MU Extension commercial agriculture program. Only 4 inches of rain was recorded across most of Missouri in May and June. Normal rainfall is 10 inches.

"So we have a 6-inch moisture deficit going into what are normally the hottest and drier months of summer," said Guinan.

In addition to the rain shortage, January-to-June temperatures show the warmest average on record in 118 years. The state continues to set heat records: Third warmest winter, warmest March and warmest spring.

"It's a unique growing season," Guinan said. "High heat and lack of rain indicate possible prolonged drought."

That brings back memories of some of the state's tougher times.

"It's beginning to look a lot like 1988," said Wiebold.

Guinan noted that 1988 was one of the three worst droughts of the last century. That includes the mid-1950s and the dust bowl days of the 1930s.

"We're not there yet," Guinan says. "But you do have to go back to 1988 to find a drier May and June than we've had this year. Hot, dry weather in the spring isn't a good start."

Normally, May and June are the wettest months of the year in Missouri.

"This year, we're short on soil moisture. There's no reserve in the top 12 inches and subsoil is not much better," he says. Soil moisture supports crop growth during hot months, supplemented by normal rainfall."

In many parts of Missouri, a foot of soil is all there is. Below the topsoil lies claypan or rock. Iowa and Illinois cornfields tend to have deeper soils with more water reserves. That can make a difference in plant survival, according to Guinan.

A National Weather Service outlook for July issued at the end of June shows below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures for the month ahead. Usually, July is the hottest month of the year.

A drought has many facets, Guinan noted. There is the lack of precipitation. That is combined this year with high temperatures, an unusual number of sunny days and low relative humidity. Humidity levels run 20 to 30 percent by midafternoon, day in and day out.

"We've already had temperatures in triple digits, most unusual for June," he said. "Strong winds and low humidity boost water evaporation, creating plant stress."

The buildup of solar energy on the soil intensifies drought effects, according to Guinan. Sunshine boosts evapotranspiration, the water use by plants combined with evaporation from soil surfaces.

Plant transpiration pulls moisture out of the soil. Evaporation removes water from the surface, including ponds and lakes.

The Bootheel remains the driest part of the state, which now rates as extreme drought on the National Drought Monitor. Most of the rest of the state ranks as moderate drought.

"Some areas of northwestern and western Missouri received 'million-dollar rains' in late June to keep crops growing," said Guinan.

Wiebold, who oversees crop variety test plots across the state, looked at 1988 yield reports. "Then we had lots of corn that made only 10 bushels per acre," he says.

Regional extension agronomists report some cornfields with "rootless corn syndrome." Lack of soil moisture when corn was planted hurt growth of strong roots. Brace roots, which emerge at the soil surface level, failed to extend into dry soils.

Recently, strong winds blew over cornstalks in northeastern Missouri. "That corn is dead," Wiebold says.

Short-term forecasts into early July show daily temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. "There is a dire need for moisture," Guinan adds. "June ranks sixth driest on record."

Guinan encourages public reports on local conditions to the Drought Monitor participation page. The Drought Monitor is a source used by USDA in assessing drought disasters. Authors of the Drought Monitor pay attention to public reports, Guinan says.

Anyone can contribute at http://droughtreporter.unl.edu.

The 2012 drought has become a widespread concern and now covers much of the Corn Belt.

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