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Cool, wet spring throws a curve ball at farmers

Monday, June 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:34 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Flooding at John Sam Williamson's farm has caused damage to soybeans. Soybeans should be planted in May and then need about an inch of rain each week from June through October for them to yield the best crop, Williamson said. As of Wednesday, Williamson had planted about two-thirds of his crop, but had lost 5 percent of it to recent flooding. He has "been in observation mode" for the past week and hasn't been able to plant or tend his crops, he said.

COLUMBIA — Last year it was drought. This year it's heavy rain and flooding. It seems Missouri farmers can't catch a break from the weather.

Boone County farmers are worried about planting crops and about yield size, though they say it's still early in the season. From January to May of this year, Columbia received 24.86 inches of rain, bringing it within spitting distance of the record set in 1995 when Boone County had 27.14 inches of rain during that period. There was flooding that year.

It's an extreme reversal from last year's drought, when Boone County received 6.06 inches of rain from June to September. That amount was 9.09 inches below normal for those months, according to monthly climatological reports published by the National Climatic Data Center.

Lack of moisture, however, is not the problem farmers face this spring; the cool and wet weather has pushed back planting for many farmers, and emerging crops risk drowning from frequent rains.

Spring showers cause flood warnings

Corn, soybean, wheat and livestock farmers in Boone County and mid-Missouri face yield loss if the rains continue and nitrogen levels drop, threatening crops and, therefore, feed.

Brian Schnarre, who owns Tri-City Farms and grows crops on 2,700 acres west of Centralia, said he's facing problems with decreased nitrogen in his wheat fields, despite having applied nitrogen to the soil earlier this year. Diminishing nitrogen can lead to yield loss.

Because the soil is saturated with rain water, more rain will cause standing water and can be a threat to new plants.

As of June 2, 86 percent of corn crops were planted, and 72 percent of that had sprouted. Thirty-six percent of soybean crops were in the ground, with 21 percent sprouted in Missouri, according to the Crop Progress Report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Bradford Research Farm southeast of Columbia planted corn three weeks later than expected, but it's still too soon to tell how this summer's crops will turn out. Late crops are a problem for other farms in the area as well.

Schnarre still is waiting to plant his soybean crop, which typically would have been planted a month ago; corn, which normally would be in the ground by the middle of April, didn't see soil until early May.

Chuck Miller, owner of Miller Cattle Co. east of Columbia, is struggling with baling hay because cutting now could damage pastures, and the hay wouldn't dry.

"I don't ever want to wish off any rain, but I'm about to," Miller said.

John Sam Williamson, who farms Missouri River bottomland near McBaine, lost about 5 percent of his crop to standing water caught between the levees, and between 15 percent and 20 percent of his land was covered by water at one point after heavy rain and flooding from the river. Williamson has 700 of 1,070 acres of soybeans planted for this season.

"Soybeans are kind of like people," Williamson said. "You can hold your breath for a minute, maybe two. They can hold their breath for a day or two, but longer than that and they'll drown."

Last year's drought dilemma

The Bradford farm faced crippling yields during the 2012 drought.

The farm lost more than 75 percent of its corn yield, 50 percent of its soybean yield and 25 percent of its sorghum yield. Late rain toward the end of the summer wasn't enough to rescue the vegetable crop, either, and its quality remained low. Regular water irrigation was inadequate.

"We can water, but we can't irrigate everything," said Tim Reinbott, director of the Bradford Research Farm..

The research center made less than half the profit it usually gets from crop sales and had to pay workers from a savings account. That left the research center unable to accommodate summer programs for students.

Schnarre lost between one-third and one-half of his corn crop, and his soybean crop yielded about 20 bushels an acre compared to his usual 40 to 50 bushels.

He said he and his children always anticipate the possibility of a drought, but the severity of last year's was beyond their expectations.

"We're always 10 days to two weeks from a drought in this area," Schnarre said.

Last year, Miller couldn't rely on rain to keep his three ponds filled and his cows hydrated. He replaced two of the ponds with automatic watering systems, which fill troughs with water from Boone County Public Water Supply District No. 9.

"Purchased water is expensive, but we can depend on it," Miller said.

Miller also bought additional feed to make up for the lack of grass in his pastures, but coming up with the money to cover the expenses was difficult. To accommodate monetary losses from the drought, Miller was forced to sell about 10 percent of his herd.

"We made it through with a lot of prayers, a lot of hard work," Miller said.

On the other hand, the dry weather was superb for vineyards throughout Boone County. Crop quality was "excellent," said Scott Schrader, owner of Schrader Vineyards. "2012 was a great vintage year."

The dry heat and lack of rain concentrated the sugars in the grape crops, producing a stronger flavor and better quality, Schrader said. In order to keep the fruit alive, however, vines were forced to deprive themselves of water and deliver it to the grape clusters.

The vineyard will face many issues if this summer's weather continues to be wet and cool. Vines risk growing black rot and mildew and producing a secondary crop of immature grapes that can compromise the primary crop at harvest time.

"Doesn't increase our quality when you get a bunch of green fruit in there," Schrader said.

Pat Guinan, a state climatologist with MU's Extension Commercial Agriculture Program, noted in a news release that temperatures in March through May made this spring the coolest since 1984. By contrast, temperatures last spring were the highest on record. There was an 11-degree average difference between the two years. Guinan called that “nothing short of incredible.”

Guinan predicted this summer will probably bring below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation.

“We had our 17th-wettest May on record this year, and history indicates that unusually wet Mays tend to be followed by cooler to near-normal summers as well as wetter to near-normal ones for Missouri,” he said.

But farmers knowMissouri weather isn't predictable.

"We're still in the first of the season, and even through it's getting late, you know, we're still planting," Schnarre said. "And in a month's time we may be begging for rain."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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