'A devastating summer'

Saturday, September 1, 2007
Gerald Bryan, University of Missouri Extension agronomist, showed soybean plants in a field near Jackson that are about one-third normal size due to drought conditions. (Fred Lynch)

Watch a video of Chaffee farmer David Landewee discussing the effect of dry conditions on corn and soybean yields while harvesting corn near Delta, Mo.

During August, farmers have seen their crops bake in the field, largely unable to do anything about the situation if they're farming ground that isn't irrigated.

"The last 30 days, it's been like being in a microwave oven set on high," said Matthew McCrate, a resident of the Cape Girardeau area who farms near Portageville, Mo., and is a member of the Missouri Soybean Association board of directors. "The further south you go, the worse it is."

The summer growing season of 2007 started out fairly well, not counting the April freeze, now being called the "Easter Freeze," that severely damaged wheat, hay and fruit crops around the area. Farmers were able to get their crops out on time, and temperatures were working to their favor.

But as the season went on, the rains that are so essential to farming failed to fall, creating one of the driest summers in recent memory. Now all of Southeast Missouri is in the grip of severe to extreme drought, as defined by the U.S. Drought Monitor, with the far southern counties of the Bootheel being hardest hit.

These soybeans are dead and dying because of drought conditions in a field north of Jackson. (Fred Lynch)

Over recent weeks the conditions have only worsened. Even though the heat wave that smothered the area in August has subsided, the rains have not come. 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 directed the Missouri Farm Service Agency to begin 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.

And the point of no return has probably already been reached, he said.

"For the most part, if anything were to come in now, it's too late for the 2007 summer crops," Rippey said. "Late soybeans might improve, but as you head farther south, the soybean harvest is already underway."

Chaffee farmer David Landewee harvested corn in a field near Delta, Mo. on Wednesday. The field was yielding 140 to 150 bushels per acre for dry land. A video of Landewee is available at semissourian.com/gallery. (Fred Lynch)

What soybeans that can be harvested, that is.

Most of Southeast Missouri has been relatively lucky when compared to its neighbors to the southeast. Much of Tennessee and Mississippi and parts of Georgia and the Carolinas are experiencing the worst classification of drought given by the U.S. Drought Monitor -- "exceptional drought." Statistically, Rippey said, the "exceptional drought" is one so severe it only occurs once every 50 years. Areas of Southeast Missouri are experiencing drought that only occurs every 10 to 50 years.

While area farmers may be relatively lucky, that doesn't do much to ease the stress their crops are enduring. Livestock producers have been hit exceptionally hard, with the drought wiping out nearly all the area's pastureland and hay crops and drying up watering holes.

Already using hay

Livestock producers have already started feeding their cattle hay, something that usually doesn't happen until much later in the year. Their troubles started in April. A warm spring caused pasture grasses to grow prematurely, and those grasses were cut down by the Easter freeze. Then came the drought, destroying what had recovered.

Now farmers are wondering what they'll have to feed their cattle this winter, said Roger Eakins, a livestock specialist with the Cape Girardeau County office of the University of Missouri Extension.

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

Much of Missouri, the nation's second-biggest cattle state, has been spared the drought. Some areas, like southwest Missouri, ravaged by drought last year, have avoided abnormal dryness altogether. Other areas are only experiencing minor drought.

But in Southeast Missouri, some of the smaller cattle producers may sell off their herds altogether and get out of the business, Eakins said.

Soybean and cotton crops are in equally rough shape. Most corn crops, even nonirrigated crops, have come through with only minor reductions in yield, said Mike Geske, a Matthews, Mo., farmer and president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association. Warm temperatures throughout the growing season have brought the corn harvest -- now going strong -- a few days earlier, Geske said, but 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.

Many farmers diversify their crops, meaning the relatively good corn harvest will ease the pain of a bad year for soybeans and cotton, Geske said. But even with diversification, some farmers still planted a majority of their acres with soybeans, he said.

"A lot of guys have 70 to 80 percent of their farm in soybeans, and those guys are really going to take it on the chin if they don't have irrigation," Geske said.

Irrigated crops have come out much better. Even so, with the hot temperatures and lack of rain, the cost of irrigation is much higher than in a normal year.

Hardest hit are soybeans planted in wheat fields after the June wheat harvest. 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.

Roger Schwab, a farmer who works ground north of Jackson, said he's expecting yields of anywhere from 15 to 20 bushels an acre from late, nonirrigated soybeans that would normally produce 35 to 40 bushels per acre.

"I've never seen double-crop soybeans try to mature this early," Schwab said. "They should be green for another three or four weeks, and they're just dying from lack of moisture. They've gotten everything they can out of the ground and they're trying to mature ahead of time."

Former Scott County presiding commissioner Martin Priggel has farmed in northern Scott County for 45 years. Priggel said he hasn't seen rain since mid-July. "It's one of the driest, dustiest spells I've ever seen," he said.

Some farmers took a double hit with their wheat crops devastated by frost and their soybeans wracked by drought, said David Herbst of Chaffee, Mo., a farmer since 1991. Like Priggel, Herbst said he's never seen a year this dry compounded with such extreme heat.

Too small to pick

Cotton plants are producing some bolls that are too small to even be picked, said Michael Milam, a University of Missouri Extension cotton specialist serving Dunklin and Pemiscot counties.

The effect on consumers should be minimal, agricultural experts say, because this year's drought is confined to a relatively small area of the United States. That's unlike the drought of 1988 that covered much of the growing area of the United States.


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