Hot spell a curse for farms

Officials say low rainfall is taking
a high toll on Missouri’s farmers.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:35 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The combination of heat and drought is painting a bleak picture for Missouri farmers.

Much of the state’s corn is dead or dying. Soybeans are suffering. Pastures are so poor that farmers are depleting stockpiles of hay to keep their livestock alive.

That’s the message U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., heard at a roundtable discussion he convened Monday morning to assess the weather’s effects on Missouri agriculture.

“When we discuss drought relief in Washington, many folks, on the House side especially, haven’t ever seen a farm and don’t particularly care,” Bond said. “But when the governor seeks help, we will swing our weight behind him.”

Bond opened the discussion by noting that droughts are three time more costly than floods and 1½ times more costly than hurricanes. Droughts in 1988 and 1989, for example, caused a State climatologist Pat Guinan of University Extension said much of Missouri is 4 to 5 inches below normal rainfall for the past six weeks, and the state’s Drought Assessment Committee will meet Friday to update those figures. As Guinan read off discouraging statistics, he urged participants to not “shoot the messenger.”

“Corn has pretty much been shot with this recent heat,” Guinan said. “And these over-100-degree temperatures have just added insult to injury.”

The weather station at MU’s Sanborn Field recorded a high temperature Monday of 101.7 degrees. Soil temperatures hovered around 108 degrees.

One of the panelists brought in a stalk of corn from his own field to illustrate the devastation. The brown stalk was completely dry and brittle to the touch.

Guinan, however, did deliver some good news in the form of a cold front expected to move through the area today. It could cool high temperatures by as much as 20 degrees and bring a good chance of rain.

Still, the rain might come too late for some. The Missouri Agriculture Statistics Service reports that the condition of crops and pastures continues to decline. Farmers told the service in a weekly survey July 18 that 27 percent of Missouri corn is in poor or very poor condition, while 24 percent of soybeans are poor or very poor. Those reports came before the onset of the heat wave that saw temperatures soar above 100 degrees in much of the state for six consecutive days.

Gov. Matt Blunt has asked that the surveys begin to gauge the direct effects of drought so that farmers might become eligible for emergency loans.

Farmers are also reporting hay yields below normal. Pasture and livestock figures also continue to decline, with 63 percent of farmers surveyed rating pastures as poor or very poor. Judy Grundler of the Missouri Department of Agriculture said farmers are quickly depleting last year’s bumper crop of hay to compensate for poor pasture growth.

Grundler added that what began as a drought in Missouri’s Bootheel has now consumed nearly the entire state. Water levels are also dropping in streams, rivers and groundwater reservoirs. Low levels on the Missouri River have forced officials to call for an end to the navigation season on Oct. 15, 48 days sooner than the usual Dec. 1 closing.

Mike Wells, deputy director of Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources, also noted that wells are drying up, forcing some farmers to ask for financial help to water their livestock.

David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association, suggested the Farm Service Agency provide assistance to crop farmers that would allow them to sell otherwise useless corn to dairy farmers to feed their cows.

“Instead of letting the corn go to waste, that way they could get some value out of it,” Drennan said. “The community could benefit.”

The excessive heat has caused soybeans to be less resistant to infestations of spider mites, Grundler said. But Dale Ludwig, executive director and chief executive officer of the Missouri Soybean Association, said hope remains for soybeans.

“The great thing about soybeans is they’re pretty tolerant,” Ludwig said. “The story for soybeans isn’t over yet. We can still recover with some rain.”

Brian Brookshire of the Missouri Department of Conservation said the impact of the drought on forests might be evident for years.

“New plantings will suffer a great deal. They may even be at a total loss,” Brookshire said, explaining that trees that have been planted within the past four years are not equipped to handle a drought this severe and probably will not survive.

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