Drought 2012: Some farmers could be better off than expected, but not all

See also: Grain prices climb as crops bake in drought.

WOOSTER, Ohio — There’s some good news on the horizon for farmers in northeast Ohio, parts of central Ohio and other places.

Rain showers the past couple weeks in those regions have helped lessen some of the damage from the drought of 2012. And forecasters are predicting a much-needed increase in precipitation heading into August.

Heading into fall, “above normal temperatures will relax to near normal, with rainfall near to slightly below normal,” said Jim Noel, with the National Weather Service, in Ohio State University’s C.O.R.N. Newsletter. “This combination … should allow drought conditions to slowly improve into autumn.”

He predicted near-normal rainfall of about an inch for the first week of August, with the potential for more rainfall where thunderstorms persist. Temperatures will be above normal, but only a few degrees.

“The worst of the drought seems to have broken,” said Marlin Clark, a grain merchandiser for Town and Country Co-op, which serves northeast Ohio.

“Farmers have gotten a lot more positive in their attitude the past couple weeks,” he said, thanks to scattered showers.

But nearly two-thirds of the nation is still experiencing drought, with some crops already considered a complete loss. In Ohio, 100 percent of the state is abnormally dry, and nearly 98 percent is in moderate drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Pennsylvania is only slightly better, with 69 percent of the state — including much of southwestern Pa. — abnormally dry and more than 10 percent in moderate drought.

Good opportunity

Clark said farmers were understandably nervous at first about what kind of yield they would get. But with the most recent late-July rains, he said more farmers should be feeling confident about selling grain, especially with prices at a near all-time high.

“I think that we in northeast Ohio, we don’t have anything to complain about,” he said. “We’ve got some fears, but I don’t think anything to complain about.”

As the drought breaks, he expects prices will begin to slide.

“Most people are going to have some crops,” he said, possibly more than they imagined. “Historically, in dry years farmers never sell enough,” he said.

A little too late. It’s welcome news to farmers who have pleaded for rain since April and May, but for many, the damage is already done.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of early July, predicted 145 bushels of corn per acre, down from 166 bushels in the previous forecast. Even with the decrease, it would have made the third-largest corn crop on record.

But the department says “conditions have deteriorated since that time,” and predicts a considerably lower crop when it announces the next yield projections Aug. 10.

“What is clear,” according to USDA, “is that the new marketing year will begin with historically low corn stocks and tight supplies.”

In western Ohio, where the state’s drought is among the worst — corn and hay crops are showing signs of significant yield loss.

Bruce Clevenger, extension educator for Ohio State University in Defiance County, said good corn there typically ranges from 150-200 bushels per acre. This year, he’s seeing some fields that will range 20-50 bushels per acre.

“Some corn appears fairly tall and green, but once we walk into that corn, what we see is a tremendous amount of variability,” he said.

Harvest precautions

Farmers who are considering chopping their corn for silage — instead of shelling — need to be aware of potential for higher nitrate levels in drought-stricken corn, which can sicken livestock if the concentration is too high.

Clevenger said farmers should wait three to five days after a significant rain event to harvest, because this has shown to greatly reduce nitrates.

Also, they should spend the $15-$20 it costs for a nitrate test, before harvesting. He said the cost is only about 1 percent the value of a good quality milk cow, and is worth the cost.

Farmers are starting their third hay cutting in Defiance County, but Clevenger said it’s going to be 70 or more percent less yield than usual. He said some farmers are making third cutting early in hopes August will bring more rain and a better chance for a quality fourth cutting.

Josh Moorefield, a commercial hay grower from Wayne County, Ohio, said he drove through Defiance County over the weekend and said things out west are definitely worse than he’s seen in eastern Ohio.

“It’s just crazy; it’s just three hours from home,” he said, and in very different condition.

Livestock farmers

Among the hardest hit will be livestock farmers — especially those who must buy grain for feed.

The USDA says prices will go up in the grocery stores over the next few months, especially for items like milk and meat. But Clark said it won’t be because farmers are paying more for feed, it will be because of fewer cattle on the market.

Clark said it could be several years before the full effect of the drought is felt, because the decline and any rebuilding of the livestock herd will take time. USDA estimates 73 percent of the nation’s domestic cattle are within an area of drought.

“Higher feed costs and lack of pasture are reducing prices of feeder cattle, and inducing growers to place cattle on feed lots at lower weights,” according to USDA.

The impact of placing cattle on feed sooner “is likely to be more beef supply at potentially lower prices in the next six-nine months, but less beef and higher prices later in 2013 and beyond.”

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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