High and Dry

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Corn moping, farmers hoping for rain as dry weather persists

By The Staff

    Saturday’s scattered showers didn’t provide much relief to the severe drought conditions plaguing southwest Iowa. Persistently dry weather continues to stress crops and livestock in Mills County and across the Midwest, threatening food and ethanol supplies and fueling fears of higher costs to those commodities.

    A weekly crop report issued Aug. 12 by the Iowa Department of Agriculture shows corn and soybean conditions continue to decline because of inadequate rainfall. More than two-thirds of the state’s topsoil and subsoil moisture levels are very short, the report said. More than half of all corn crops are reported poor or very poor, the report said, while less than one-fifth of the state’s pastures are rated in fair or better condition.
    Glenwood has received just 1.87 inches of rain so far in August, according to weather data provided by the USDA Farm Service Agency. It received .16 inches in July and 4.23 inches in June — well below monthly averages.
    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded this as the worst drought nationally in 56 years, while the USDA earlier this month declared 79 Iowa counties as natural disaster areas. The declaration will make emergency loans available to farmers who lost substantial yields of crops or livestock due to the drought.
    The drought even turned political last week when President Barack Obama appeared in Des Moines to blame Republicans for a legislative stalemate that’s delaying millions of dollars in relief to the parched Midwest. Obama announced the Department of Agriculture intends to buy up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken and catfish to help support farmers suffering from the drought, while urging Congress to expedite aid to farmers.
    Mike Hossle, who raises 800 acres of corn, soybeans and hay in Mills and Montgomery counties, says the drought is the worst he’s seen in his 35 years of farming. While he said the crop looks good overall considering what the crops have been through, he doesn’t think yields will come anywhere close to what they are typically. He estimates corn and soybean yields will be 40 to 50 percent short from average years.
    “There’s corn out there, but some aren’t going to reach 50 bushels (per acre),” Hossle said.
    The drought has also affected grazing land for cattle, he said.
    Hossle spends approximately three hours daily feeding his herd because the drought has deteriorated suitable grasslands.
    “I’ve never seen things this bad in my lifetime. I’ve been through dry weather before but nothing like this,” he said. “The only thing we haven’t had to do (in the drought) is haul water to cows yet.”
    Hossle called the last two years — with last year’s flooding and this year’s drought —  a “rough patch” for farmers in southwest Iowa.
    “It’s really been a disaster for those Missouri River bottom farmers. Last year and this year its back-to-back for them.”
    Dave Sieck, who farms 600 acres of corn and 700 acres of soy beans in Mills county, said four of the past five years have been below average in yields for corn and soybeans — with 2009 being the one  “good year,” he said.
    Sieck said it’s hard to predict yields before harvest, but they will likely be significantly lower than previous years.
    “A lot of the people I talk to say they don’t know what they have in the fields until they’re getting out there in harvest. Some people are getting good bushels, others aren’t getting even what they hoped they’d get.”
    Sieck said the drought is the worst he’s seen since the 1980s, but drought-resistant hybrids and improved irrigation methods have helped prevent what could have been even worse for southwest Iowa farmers.
    “The droughts we used to have we probably could have handled pretty well now, and in 10 years, we’ll probably be even better at handling them.”

Problems ahead
    But since there’s no immediate cure-all for this drought, many are anticipating wide-ranging problems. If drought conditions persist demand for food and fuel supplies will likely outpace supplies, which ultimately could translate to higher prices for consumers.
    Energy policies imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2005 require 7.5 billion gallons of renewable-fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012 — much of which is expected to come from corn-based ethanol.
U.S. ethanol production has fallen 15 percent since the beginning of the year and federal lawmakers could temporarily relax those standards due to an expected scarce supply of corn.
    But the Renewable Fuels Association, a national trade association for the U.S. ethanol industry, which advocates for the increased use of fuel ethanol, says that’s not necessary to meet EPA standards.
    “As the crop is not yet in the bin, we do not know the final harvest. Nor do we yet know how farmers around the world will respond or how American farmers will react next spring,” said RFA Chairman Chuck Woodside.
    The government will demand 10.8 billion bushels of corn to meet its ethanol-production quota and Woodside said it’s premature for lawmakers to abandon those plans. Grain rationing could help the government meet ethanol-production standards, Woodside said, while curbing higher gas prices for consumers.
    Short-term rationing won’t be enough to meet long-term projections for energy and food needs, though.
    Experts predict the world must double its food production by 2050 to meet growing demands.
    Since 2006, the Iowa-based National Farmer’s Association has been trumpeting the need to conserve the nation’s corn supplies — something that seemed much easier to do during the past half-century’s more favorable growing conditions.?
    “Living hand-to-mouth and not storing grain is the reverse of what plain commons sense tells us,” said Gene Paul, ag policy analyst with the organization. “It’s time to put common sense over ideology.”    
    The drought could lead to food shortages for millions of people worldwide, according to some estimates, and Paul said lawmakers could isolate U.S. corn supplies as a last resort, which could triple world grain prices.