Missouri's Bootheel towns hardest hit by drought

Sunday, September 2, 2007 | 10:20 p.m. CDT; updated 8:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

CAPE GIRARDEAU — Southeast Missouri is in the grip of a severe to extreme drought, as scorching temperatures and no rain in August baked crops in the field, burned pastures and dried up cattle watering holes.

The far southern counties of the Bootheel have been hardest hit, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“The last 30 days, it’s been like being in a microwave oven set on high,” said Matthew McCrate, who farms near Portageville. “The further south you go, the worse it is.”

The summer of 2007 is one of the driest in recent memory.

Only 0.01 of an inch was recorded in August at Cape Girardeau, shattering the record for driest August set in 1996, when 0.22 inches of rain fell.

On Thursday, Gov. Matt Blunt ordered an assessment of crop conditions in Southeast Missouri, the first step in getting disaster assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For nonirrigated land, “it’s really been a pretty devastating summer,” said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the USDA.

Any rainfall at this point would be too late for the summer crops, Rippey said.

Much of Tennessee and Mississippi and parts of Georgia and the Carolinas are experiencing an “exceptional drought,” which occurs once every 50 years. The drought here is one that occurs every 10 to 50 years.

Southeast Missouri livestock producers have already started feeding their cattle hay, and are wondering what they’ll have to feed their cattle this winter, said Roger Eakins, a livestock specialist with MU Extension.

“Today all I’ve done is answer questions like ‘Are we going to need to cut our corn stalks?”’ Eakins said. “Some people are out cutting beans that are still green because they make pretty good hay. It’s serious.”

Some cattle producers may sell off their herds and get out of the business, Eakins said.

Most corn crops, even nonirrigated crops, have come through with only minor reductions in yield, said Mike Geske, a farmer and president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association.

Corn was planted early enough so it was in a late growing stage when the drought conditions grew worse, saving the crops from more severe damage.

But soybean and cotton crops are in bad shape.

The drought has coincided with a key period in the soybean’s growth, causing yields to plummet and plants to reach maturity when they’re only about a third the size they should be.

Scott County farmer Martin Priggel said he hasn’t seen rain since mid-July. “It’s one of the driest, dustiest spells I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Cotton plants are producing some bolls that are too small to even be picked, said Michael Milam, an MU Extension cotton specialist.

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