After the rain, a watchful eye on the crops in Wisconsin
Post by Christie Taylor on 7/25/2012 9:00am
After nearly a month of no significant rainfall, and amid deepening drought, the rain that pummeled Madison last Wednesday evening--and, in some parts of town, the morning as well--was a welcome relief.
And though it stayed hot, more rain followed: Sunday morning, then Tuesday morning and early Wednesday, breaking what had been for area farmers a disheartening period of wilting crops.
Cate Eddy, who runs Ridgeland Harvest Farm near Viroqua with her husband Matt, said in a newsletter to the farm’s CSA customers that rain has skirted a few miles on either side of them all summer. They were managing to stay ahead of the drought only with a rigorous schedule of hand-watering and drip irrigation: ”Every 3-4 hours into the night--it feels like a new baby in the house!”
She said the rain Wednesday was so welcome that she and husband Matt went out for dinner with their parents to celebrate. “It’s amazing to feel the lightened load,” she wrote. “We hope this is the start of a new beginning of weather patterns now.”
As of Tuesday the National Weather Service’s instrumentation at the Dane County Airport had recorded 2.03 inches of rain since July 1, and a total of 2.34 inches since June 1. Normally, the area has seen 7.8 inches by now, but that number is still more six times the rainfall Madison saw during the entire month of June.
Milwaukee has fared somewhat better, with 1.89 inches in July, and 2.79 since June 1. Rain early Wednesday morning rain will add at least .23 inches to the Madison total.
Like water for corn
This is good news for everyone, from fish struggling for oxygen in 70-degree trout streams to the farmers toiling in Wisconsin’s largest industry. The first rain came five days after the Wisconsin State Journal reported that the area’s corn crop could be “a total loss” without rain within the next seven days.
As of Sunday, 63 percent of Wisconsin’s corn crop was in “poor” or “very poor” condition, while only 31 percent was in “good” or “excellent” condition. The week prior, the same percentage was in “poor” or “very poor” condition, but 30 percent was in “good” or “excellent” condition. About a third of the state’s corn grows in the area experiencing the worst drought.
This is a crucial time for the corn crop because the shedding of pollen must coordinate with the growth of corn silks, each of which carries a grain of pollen into the tightly-wrapped ear. Each kernel on a finished ear of corn, usually between 400 and 550, represents a single act of pollination by a single cornsilk. And the silks rely on water; in drought, they might not develop until the pollen has already been shed, and even if they develop, they might still be too dry to properly funnel it into the ear.
Plants have a ten-day window in which to do this, which for some has already passed: Lauer said the southernmost 25 counties, including Dane, had already seen about 30 percent of its corn crop pass through pollination. The percentage would be lower in more northern counties because of later planting times. “And then there are some fields that are just plain short, that don’t have the water holding capacity, so those fields may be dead.” Ridgetop fields, for example, tend to have rockier soil and dry out faster, he said.
And even now, the crop is operating under a deficit of more than 5 inches in Dane County, compared to a normal pattern of nearly 8 inches since June 1. In an entire growing season corn requires 20 to 24 inches of moisture to produce 150 to 200 bushels, or about an inch a week, says UW-Extension corn specialist Joe Lauer. This moisture can come from several sources: snowmelt from the winter (but this winter was dry), irrigation (but few farmers in Wisconsin irrigate), and rain (well below an inch a week this year).
“The corn has basically been living on soil water that whole time since the last rain,” Lauer said. “The plants are using a third of an inch per day just living.”
Soil itself holds about 2 inches of moisture per foot of depth, and, with corn roots stretching up to five feet below the surface, that gives a plant about 10 inches of soil moisture to grab. All of that is now used up, except for the few inches put back into the soil with the week’s rain.
But for fields just going into pollination, the rain this past week is likely to have helped.
“We’re right in the middle of it,” Lauer said. “There’s still plenty that can pollinate and will benefit from this rain. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Lauer said the best indicator of pollination success would be the USDA’s official yield estimate, due out on Aug. 1.
From there, he said, corn ovules that manage to be fertilized will still need water to keep them growing. Continued drought could still lead to smaller kernels, and thus smaller yields. “We’ve got to have rain to complete the crop,” Lauer said. “We need an inch a week.
“We’re not out of this yet.”
We’re still in a drought
By now, farms like Ridgeland have already abandoned some new plantings, focusing on keeping what’s already planted alive until the harvest.
Mike Lind, a farmer at Driftless Organics in Soldiers Grove, called it “another dry and devastating year for the history books,” in a newsletter to that farm’s CSA customers. “One can’t help but wince and start to feel altogether nauseous as he goes about his daily tasks on the farm; watching crops slowly wither and die. We irrigate as much as we can, but we just can’t keep up.” A week before, he detailed the plights of specific crops: the tomatoes and peppers were happy, but the cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower, “are just plain giving up.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Drought Monitor upgraded about 18 percent of southern Wisconsin to “extreme” drought last Thursday morning, and 40 percent of the state is now in a moderate drought or worse. The Thursday morning rating uses data only through Tuesday, so Wednesday’s rain was not incorporated, and the updated ratings won’t be available until this coming Thursday.
Last Thursday’s release also pushed 42 percent of the country into the “severe” or higher category, the highest so far this century. A NASA satellite image compiling data from June 25 - July 10 shows the majority of the central United States is experiencing vegetation growth below--and in many areas well below--the norm. In this picture, Wisconsin isn’t the worst off, but it’s still distinctly behind.
After the rain Wednesday, fire danger has been down, with the red temporarily replaced by a welcome blue on the southern part of the map. But the Department of Natural Resources cautioned in a release that it expected danger to resume its prior levels as the heat soared back to the upper 90s; as of Wednesday burning restrictions remain in place for 17 counties.
Mark Svoboda is a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the organization that releases the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor ratings. He said it was unlikely even this spate of rain would do much to scale back the state’s drought rating.
“As dry as it has been and as hot as it’s going to be, that rain evaporates so fast,” he said. “We need a longer term pattern to reduce the long term deficits. My guess is you would need to see a good three to five inches widespread to put a good dent in this drought. And I think instead it’s going to be very much living rain to rain for the rest of the growing season.”
“I wish I had better news,” he said. “Droughts tend to feed on themselves. Storms follow the jet stream, and it’s been pretty much displaced up around the US/Canada border.”
Barring a major atmospheric shift, he said, the statistical outlook just gets worse from here. “We are at, or nearing, the maximum weekly precipitation totals for this year before heading downhill during late summer and into fall,” he said.
The National Weather Service is predicting more rain this week, with the chance of precipitation as high as 60 percent on Wednesday night and several days with 30 percent chances, but, after highs of 100 Wednesday and 91 Thursday, temperatures will will drop down to the mid-80s until Monday. For the rest of the summer, according to the National Weather Service’s 90-day forecast, southern Wisconsin has a high chance of staying hotter than normal, and about even odds when it comes to being a wetter than usual, drier than usual, or normal from here on out.
Food on the table
Livestock farmers have their own problems. They rely on corn and soybeans as feed: A significant portion of the corn crop, in fact, is animal feed. What humans consume is negligible in comparison. And with 66 percent of the state’s pasture and grazing range in “poor” or “very poor” condition and alfalfa crops falling off, grass-fed beef producers must now feed their cattle hay, a less nutrient-rich source.
Some farmers are giving up on their corn crop already to sell as silage, though it won’t have the same nutrient content as fully matured corn or other sources of feed. Corn and other crops can contain higher concentrations of toxic nitrates during droughts, too, making them dangerous food if farmers don’t mix them carefully with low-nitrate feeds.
The University of Wisconsin-Extension has a farmer to farmer exchange online where farmers selling hay and silage can connect with farmers who need to buy it, with the hope that direct communication will prevent unnecessary waste.
On Monday, Governor Scott Walker announced that farmers would be allowed to graze livestock on and harvest hay from about 11,500 acres of fields and marshes in state parks, natural areas, and other Department of Natural Resources holdings. The governor had already declared an emergency in 42 counties, allowing farmers with access to streams and other surface waters to more easily obtain permits to divert them for irrigation.
And he said on a farm tour Friday that he’s asked for a federal disaster declaration as well for 23 counties. A federal declaration, like the one already declared in more than 1,000 counties elsewhere in the nation, would allow livestock farmers access to emergency loans. On Tuesday, the USDA also announced farmers could obtain hay and other forage from land currently set aside under the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Supply, demand, and the price of beef
Even with the new availability of grazing lands, UW-Madison Associate Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics Paul Mitchell said animal health will still depend on farmers’ access to grains: hay is a lower quality feed and corn, even at the current prices, remains, he says, “the cheapest way to get protein and carbohydrates into animals.”
Corn prices hit record heights last week, but rain has brought them down this week.
“We’re dancing with record prices,” Mitchell said. “The real effect in the market is volatility because people don’t know what’s out there. We don’t know what the pollen success was, and even if it was successful, we don’t know how much grain will actually generate.”
Although corn and soybean prices are way up, companies are predicting that prices for consumer products ranging from soda (sweetened with corn syrup) to cereal will still remain stable.
Instead, the high cost of feeding animals, whether from purchased hay or high-priced corn and soybeans, will have the biggest economic ripples, said Mitchell. “Meat, dairy, and eggs are all fairly directly linked to the price of feed,” he said. Dairy and eggs will get more expensive, but also more scarce as farmers sell (often for butchering) animals they can’t afford to feed. Prices for meat will likely go down in the short term, pushed by sudden glut, but in the longterm that will lead to higher prices when those same animals would have been sold. “Beef especially,” Mitchell said. “There’s a long lag between birth and usefulness. If you sell a cow now, it’ll take two years before you have another cow to replace it. Poultry take only 16 weeks.”
Another element of uncertainty? Since the last major drought in 1988 the country has shifted to using more hybrids and genetically modified crops, with better roots, more stable stalks, and other enhancements. “This is the first time we’ve seen a widespread test of how well these crops perform under drought conditions,” Mitchell says. “We won’t know until the harvest, but I’m very curious to see how well these transgenic crops hold up.”
A note about ethanol
Wisconsin corn is primarily (more than half) used for animal feed, but a large chunk of it is also used for ethanol production. At 500 million gallons per year, Wisconsin is the seventh-highest producer of ethanol in the U.S., exporting $75 million worth in the last year.
Ethanol prices are tied not to the price of corn, but to the price of gasoline. If gas prices stay low, though, and corn prices stay high, Mitchell said there’d be a tighter profit margin for ethanol producers. “If prices get really high, some of these ethanol plants are going to shut down,” he said. “They’re seeing the price of what they sell is going down and the cost of what they need going up.”
This could create a shortage for oil refineries required to blend ethanol into fuels under the EPA’s Renewable Fuels Standards program, unless, as producers are starting to request, the standards are temporarily relaxed. However, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said last week that, given the amount of ethanol still in storage, he saw no reason to relax these standards. Several states, including Minnesota, also have requirements that a certain percentage of ethanol be mixed into transportation fuels.
“One-two punch” for organic livestock
Meanwhile, organic livestock, which must be fed organic corn and graze in pastures free of pesticides and herbicides, were facing feed strain even before the drought. George Siemon, CEO of Wisconsin-based cooperative Organic Valley, says the federal ethanol push has led to rising prices for commercial corn, but also more expensive land and land rents: farmers are less likely to switch to the organic method of alternating corn with alfalfa when they can make more money planting back-to-back corn crops.
“When an organic farmer can only grow corn two years out of five, it’s harder to make a living,” Siemon said. At the same time, he said, the demand for organic meat and dairy has added to the number of animals who need organic feed.
“We’ve lost about 15 percent of our organic acres in the past four years, in a time period when we needed an increase of 15 percent,” Siemon said. Organic Valley has responded by raising prices--but they’re reaching the limit of what consumers will tolerate--and buying more expensive grain from Saskatchewan. Organic farmers outside the cooperative have shipped grain from as far away as India, he said. “The ethanol mandate has really upset the applecart,” he said.
And in the short term, the shortage of feed means the cooperative is buying hay from states to the west, an expensive prospect for farmers who can’t produce enough themselves. Farmers in Indiana are already offloading dairy animals, he said, and he was seeing more inquiries about the same in Wisconsin in the past two weeks.
The drought has complicated the hurdles organic farmers must already leap to keep their certification: livestock must spend at least 120 days in a year grazing, which they can’t do if pastures are dead. The state and federal lands now open for grazing are likely to qualify as organic, but farmers need an affidavit to back this up before they can actually begin grazing. “We’re talking with the USDA about how to quicken access to those acres,” Siemon said. “At this stage of the game farmers are eager to graze, they’re going to take any feed they can get.”
Farmers who can’t meet the pasturing requirement must ask the USDA permission to fail, something granted to Wyoming farmers already this year, and in New Mexico last year.
Overall, Siemon said, he’s expecting lower milk yields--even for farmers that manage to feed their entire herds--and combined with the longer-term feed shortage, “It very well could lead to a several year slowdown in organic production.”
Still, Siemon said, speaking Tuesday morning from La Farge, Wisconsin, as rain swept through the region, it wasn’t all bad news. Organic corn was tending to do better with the dry conditions, thanks to deeper root systems and other benefits of crop rotation. The recent rain had taken stress off the pollination process, and Tuesday’s storm would help push it back toward normal development.
“Last night we got an inch and a half of rain,” he said. “That’s truly going to be a million-dollar rain.”
Christie Taylor (@ctaylsaurus) covers science, environment, and, depending on the season, state politics for dane101. She verbs a lot of nouns, including rollerskates, radio, and Kurt Vonnegut. A Madison native, she's not sure she'll ever quite manage to leave Wisconsin, and that's just fine by her. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.