Farmers’ outlook grim as drought withers crops

The latest in a trend, this year’s rain deficits affect livestock and waterways alike.
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:38 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

For the past 13 months, rainfall deficits that have damaged crops in northwestern Missouri have been slowly moving southeast across the state, creating the worst long-term drought since the late 1980s.

Even with last week’s showers, it will take months of above-normal rainfall to overcome the impact, said Pat Guinan, climatologist with the commercial agricultural program at MU.

“It is going to take significant precipitation to help improve these areas,” Guinan said. “The current pattern isn’t suggesting any change over the next six to 10 days. It seems like we’re in it for the long run.”

Over the past 12 months, rainfall in Missouri is 14.68 inches below normal levels, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The combination of severe short-term dryness and persistent rainfall shortages have led to abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions statewide. Peter Hofherr, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said the state has suffered from a “lot of drought” in the last decade, but the situation has now reached a critical point.

“This drought we’ve had the last two years has been mostly in the northwest corner of the state, but now it’s moving to other areas,” Hofherr said. “We haven’t received many rains this year, and those that we have had haven’t soaked in enough to reach the subsoil.”

Last year’s drought affected mainly crops, but this year’s continued dryness has started to take its toll on water levels in ponds and streams, especially in the northwestern and west central parts of the state. Corn has been by far the crop most affected by the drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that 41 percent of Missouri’s corn crop is in poor to very poor condition.

Rob Kallenbach, assistant professor of agronomy and forage specialist at MU, says it may be too late for this year’s corn crop to have any market value. “Fields that normally yield 180 bushels per acre are right now yielding zero,” Kallenbach says.

Spencer Wegener has been farming in Boone County about 16 miles northwest of Columbia since 1951. Driving around his 120-acre spread, he’s noticed the corn and soybeans “looking worse everyday,” he said. He’s not optimistic that, come harvest time, his crops will have gotten enough rain to recover.

“Last year, I had a big loss in corn and soybeans due to the wet spring and dry summer,” Wegener said. “I think this year is going to be a lot worse.”

Farmers have encountered a host of other drought-related problems, according to the USDA, such as empty ponds and dry wells. The lack of rainfall is also killing grasslands, making it difficult for livestock to graze.

“The pastures I’ve seen look bad,” Kallenbach said. “If we don’t get rain soon, there will be no pastures left. Farmers will have to resort to feeding hay, which is four times as expensive.”

Last week, Governor Bob Holden asked the USDA to assess drought conditions in 36 counties. Although none of the counties to be assessed are in mid-Missouri, where drought conditions aren’t quite as severe, the damage to local farmers could worsen without more rain.

“Farther west and north are much worse, but everyone is affected,” said Jim Jarman, agronomy specialist with the University Outreach & Extension Program in Fulton. “It’s still pretty bad here.”

This is the second year in a row that Holden will ask for federal disaster relief for farms in the state. In 2002, the federal government contributed aid to 30 drought-stricken counties in northwestern Missouri. Last year’s drought cost the state $460 million in crop and livestock losses and hurt economic activity, according to the governor’s office. The damage is estimated to be even higher this year.

Tim Kelley, director of Missouri Farm Services Agency, and his staff will be in charge of the drought assessments. Crop damage, livestock impact and water level evaluations are just a few of the things that will weigh into the assessments made by the agency.

“We are just getting started with the assessments, but there is an indication that conditions have deteriorated rapidly,” Kelley said. “We hope to know more by the end of the month.”

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