Rainfall easing drought in certain corn states; improvement continues in Southeast Mo.

Friday, September 21, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- With hopes of a once-stellar corn crop dimmed by a summer of drought, Gerald Jenkins doesn't expect the unfolding harvest to burden his co-op's grain elevators, which are capable of storing 9 million bushels of the grain it buys from growers. Finding timely barges to ship it off may be another story.

The same drought that has punished the Midwest's corn and soybeans for months has lowered the Mississippi River that eases past the western Illinois co-op Jenkins oversees to levels unseen for nearly a quarter century. The shallower waterway -- notably from Memphis south to New Orleans -- has closed some portions of it while forcing shippers to cut the number of barges their towboats push and the amount of freight in each.

That means Jenkins may have to get in line to ship the Ursa Farmers Cooperative's goods on the Mississippi, which is among the major inland U.S. rivers that routinely move some 60 percent of the nation's grain exports each year.

In this Sept. 19, 2012, photo corn plants weakened by the drought lie on the ground after being knocked over by rain in Bennington, Neb. The U.S. Drought Monitor update released Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, says recent rainfall came too late to help already damaged corn crops but may help still-maturing soybeans. The report says dry conditions continue to ease in key Midwest states as farmers pick up their corn harvests. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

"For us, we just have to be aware we just can't snap a finger and expect a barge to be here," he said. "Instead of two days to get a barge, it may take four or five."

Mitigating matters a bit is that there's less of a corn crop expected, no thanks to the drought that has been the nation's worst in decades but increasingly is showing signs of leveling off and, in some key farm states, easing.

The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor update released Thursday showed that recent rainfall benefited parts of the Corn Belt, coming too late to help already damaged corn crops but still likely to plump up maturing soybeans in the fields.

The report shows about one-fifth of the contiguous U.S. remains in the two worst categories of drought -- extreme and exceptional. The swath still dealing with exceptional drop dropped by less than half of a percentage point as of Tuesday, to 5.96 percent.

While virtually all of the key farming states remain gripped by some form of drought, the amount of Kansas still in the worst drought classification fell by 9 percentage points to 51.04 percent. About one-quarter of Missouri remains in extreme or exceptional drought, down more than 8 percentage points from a week earlier.

In Southeast Missouri, the drought continued to ease significantly compared to a week earlier. The monitor shows the area in moderate to severe drought, with parts of the far Bootheel in extreme drought. None of Southeast Missouri is in the worst category, exceptional. Weeks ago nearly all of Southeast Missouri was in that category.

And in Iowa -- the nation's biggest corn producer -- nothing really has changed, with 66 percent of that state still in the two most serious forms of drought.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture as of Monday still listed half of the nation's corn crop in poor or very poor shape, down just 2 percentage points from a week earlier. Soybeans were faring a bit better, with 36 percent of that crop described as being in such condition, the same as the previous week.

About one-quarter of the nation's corn harvest is complete, nearly three times the average pace of the previous five years, the USDA said. Just 10 percent of the soybean crops have been reaped, more than double the typical harvest's speed.

Inland U.S. river shipping remains frustrating, given the drought's effects on key waterways.

Traffic at a crawl

A year since the Mississippi rose in some places to record levels, traffic along the river sometimes resembling a slow-motion freeway at times has been brought to a crawl, if not a congested mess. Several lower stretches have been closed, and barges have run aground. Other times, towboat pilots have had to wait at narrower channels for a barge to pass through in the opposite direction before easing their own way through, snarling traffic.

A stretch of the Mississippi north of St. Louis reopened Thursday, five days after damage discovered to a structure near the river's busiest lock forced its closure.

By the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reopened Lock 27 at Granite City, just north of St. Louis, about 3:30 a.m. Thursday, the Coast Guard said the traffic jam had grown to 63 vessels and 455 barges carrying enough cargo to fill 6,100 rail cars or 26,400 large tractor-trailers.

Within a few hours of the lock being back in business, just six vessels pushing 80 barges had made it through the lock. The last of the idled barges hauling everything from grains to coal, fertilizer and construction materials were expected to clear that vital Mississippi River corridor in two or three days, Coast Guard Lt. Colin Fogarty said.

"While it may seem slow, it's actually quite a good pace given the dynamic nature of the river and the pure size of the vessels," he said.

Workers closed the lock on Saturday after discovering that a protection cell a rock-filled steel cylinder against which barges rub to help align them for proper entry into the lock had split open, spilling enough of the rock into the river to obstruct passage.

That damage was on an unarmored section of the vertical protection cell that the barges don't typically make contact with because they're often 15 to 20 feet under water. But that portion has been exposed because the river's level has been lowered dramatically by the nation's drought, said Mike Petersen, an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.

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