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Drought likely leading to early Iowa corn harvest, sharply lower yields

But soybean crop could still do well if timely rains return

A field of dried corn plants is seen near Percival, Iowa, Thursday, July 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
A field of dried corn plants is seen near Percival, Iowa, Thursday, July 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

UPDATE: Iowa’s hot and dry July likely is going to hasten the maturity of stunted corn plants and force farmers to start harvest earlier or chop stalks into silage to feed to livestock as pasture lands dry up, the state’s top agriculture official said Monday.

“I do believe harvest will be early,” likely in August for some corn producers with the entire state facing severe to extreme drought conditions and rainfall totaling about one-fourth the normal amount for August, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. He said the fifth driest and third hottest July on record in Iowa likely will take a significant toll on corn yields, but there is still hope for a productive soybean crops if timely rains occur during the remainder of the growing season.

Northey, who joined Gov. Terry Branstad at the governor’s weekly news conference Monday, said crop conditions vary across the state, but he noted no area “has been spared” as pasture lands dry up and some farmers already are chopping stunted corn stalks for livestock silage. Currently, the state’s corn crop is at its “maximum potential” and likely will see stunted growth and maturity if the current spate of extremely hot and dry weather persists, he added.

“We certainly will see a significant reduction from the past. Pretty much every area of the state will see a reduction from what they had last year and what they would expect normally, but we don’t yet know how much of a reduction. It depends on how much more rain comes,” Northey said in assessing the state’s corn production this year.

“It’s not going to get any better, but it could get worse,” added Branstad, who provided a status report on Iowa’s 2012 crop situation during his weekly news conference. The governor said there is still hope for soybean fields in Iowa because they have been in “a holding pattern” this month and could fare better than corn production if timely rains occur in August.

Northey said agriculture has been a major economic engine in Iowa for the past five years and it’s unknown what impact this summer’s drought will have financially given that the quality of grain, yields and livestock production already have been adversely affected by the prolonged hot and dry conditions.

“We do know that this will have an impact well beyond corn and soybean producers, well beyond the livestock producers out there, and the ethanol plants out there, and into the state’s general economy,” he said. “We can’t know what that is.”

Branstad said he did not believe this year’s drought would create a financial problem for farmers similar to the 1980s. Even though land prices in Iowa are at record levels, the governor said low interest rates, high commodity prices and other economic factors reduce the likelihood of the debt crisis that hit agriculture nearly three decades ago. He said he expects land values to level off or decline in the future.

Mark Schouten, director of the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, said Iowa’s 19 rural water systems currently are being taxed but are in relatively good shape to meet demand. He said state officials are closely monitoring conditions to take proactive measures should the situation worsen – including reviewing the rules and regulations for well-drilling to help speed up the permitting process if the need arises.

Last week Branstad lifted weight restrictions for hauling hay and state Department of Transportation (DOT) officials began granting permits to farmers who want to mow ditches and bale the forage for their livestock.

“We want to assure Iowans that every effort will be taken on their behalf with regard to this drought,” Branstad said. “We will work with federal partners, state agencies and departments, and all Iowans as we combat the effects of this drought. This is a top priority of my administration.”

Branstad said the most recent federal USDA drought monitor shows that almost 75 percent of Iowa is now in the D-2 severe drought stage and roughly 25 percent in the D-3 extreme drought stage.Recently, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opened land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for emergency grazing in 26 counties in Iowa, and indicated that CRP lands will be open for the rest of Iowa counties as soon as Aug. 2 for haying and grazing.