Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Farmers pray for rain

Wet spring, dry summer puts big strain on crops

By Randy McNutt, rmcnutt@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dry weather has hindered production of corn, soybeans and other crops, and unless the Tristate receives a few good soakings, they could be in trouble.

[photo] Mike Shaw of Shaw Farms in Day Heights, Clermont County, is among the many farmers whose crops have been under severe stress this year. His field corn suffers from "firing up," a condition where heat and lack of moisture burn the plants from the ground up.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        First came the constant rains of spring; then the parched, hot summer; and now the bitter results — poor growth in some parts of the region and state.

        “This year is one that grain and hay farmers would rather put behind them,” said Steve Bartels, an Ohio State University agricultural extension agent in Butler County. “It has been very similar to 1983, when drought cut yield to about 30 percent of normal.”

        That year, he said, the area received 11 inches of rain in May and 5 inches for the rest of the growing season. Parts of Butler County received up to 12 inches of rain in May, but only 4 inches since.

        As a result, corn has suffered and soybeans haven't had enough moisture for good plant populations. “During this period corn needs about 1 inch of water each week,” Mr. Bartels said. “It will be critical to get rain quickly for the corn fields that are trying to produce ears.”

        That might be possible — temporarily. The National Weather Service says a cold front will drop high temperatures to the low-80s by midweek and “give us our best chance of organized precipitation for the next five days. It should give us a pretty good shot of rain — up to 2 inches in some spots. Then we're not expecting any rain until after Friday,” said Jeffrey Sites, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wilmington. “We have dried out pretty much since the wet spring.”

        Because of the spring's heavy rains, Mr. Bartels said, plants didn't develop the root system they needed and crops were planted into soil that was too wet, causing structural damage.

        “We are now paying for those actions,” he said. “Plants cannot reach nitrogen or any water that might be in the field. Some (corn) fields are knee high and yellow while other fields are shut down at the tassel stage.”

        At Majors Farm on Ohio 63 in Monroe, Kevin Majors said the weather had better change — quickly.

        “It's the worst corn crop we've had in a long time,” he said. “Things don't look good. The corn and beans are in some trouble. We were late getting them out as it was.

        “We couldn't make hay this spring, and that has affected the livestock. There's a big demand for hay.”

        A similar story is echoed at E. Bake & Sons Farm in Monroe.

        “Corn's real short,” Stephen Bake said. “We're selling it now, but it's not as good as it was last year.”

        Soybeans planted late lacked enough moisture to germinate the seeds for good plant populations, Mr. Bartels said.

        “Weeds in soybeans will be very difficult to control,” he said. “Mites can become a problem in weather stress. Mites feed on the soybeans and suck the life out of them.”

        At Shaw Farms in Day Heights in Clermont County, Mike Shaw's field corn is suffering from a lack of moisture and the heat. The condition reduces yield.

        Although the farm received about an inch of rain Saturday, he said, the isolated shower wasn't enough to help much. Mr. Shaw said he irrigates his sweet corn and vegetables, but not his field corn, gourds and pumpkins, which also are threatened by the lack of rain.

        Across the country, hot and otherwise disagreeable weather has hurt crops. On July 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated 50 counties in Michigan as agricultural disaster areas. That made farmers and ranchers immediately eligible for emergency farm loans.

        In North Dakota and South Dakota, livestock producers are suffering through severe drought. Officials said emergency haying on water bank areas should help.

        Indiana has had its problems too. A week ago, rain in parts of the state helped relieve stress on crops.

        “As with good comedy, timing is everything, especially when it comes to the effects of severe early season stress on corn,” said Bob Nielson of Purdue University's Department of Agronomy in Lafayette.

        As late as June 2, Indiana, Ohio and Illinois still had 3.7 million acres of corn unplanted, said Chris Hurt, a Purdue agricultural economist.

        In Kentucky, things aren't as bad.

        “But it all depends on where the showers have hit,” said Bill Brannen, deputy statistician of the Kentucky Agricultural Statistic Service. “In some places, we have no problem at all. Other places, the corn is twisting and people are looking for rain.”

        He said 32 percent of the corn crop and 27 percent of soybeans are in fair condition.

        “In 1999 and 2000, we had a drought problem,” said Dr. Stuart Foster, director of the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. “But things have been a little better this month. Farmers had good moisture to get started this spring.”

        One difference between now and 1983 is, “we now have good crop insurance,” Mr. Bartels said. “This does not help livestock producers who need the corn, hay and pasture to feed; but for cash grain farmers, the insurance may be the best "crop' this year.”


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