Drought and extreme heat burn farmers’ margin of error, and it’s only July


Record heat and pockets of drought are scorching farmland across the country, threatening crop yields and wiping out any remaining leeway to cope with more extreme weather this summer.

Throughout the Sun Belt, a prolonged heat wave is pushing temperatures into triple digits and risk of heat stress for crops. At the same time, the breadbasket states in the Midwest are struggling to manage a drought that is affecting some areas for a while. second year in a row. Nearly two-thirds of Kansas is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, and about half of Missouri and Nebraska are in the same situation.

“As long as we have irrigation, we can keep up,” said Jay Reiners, who grows corn and soybeans outside Hastings, Nebraska. But “irrigation is meant to complement Mother Nature, not replace Mother Nature,” he said. «It makes me very nervous.»

This year’s severe dry weather comes after last summer, when 60% of the Great Plains was under moderate to extreme drought. While Reiners’ 3,000-acre farm is mostly irrigated, it does include some dryland crops like corn and soybeans that are «holding up» but will «regress very quickly» if more rain doesn’t come soon, he said.

“I think it didn’t rain an inch until May of this year, and we only had a couple of inches,” he said, “so we’re starting to feel the effects of the two years in-a back-to-back drought.”

Industry experts say cool July rains across much of the Midwest came just in time for many crops to recover from the weather analysts had warned about. could deal a historic blow to grain crops.

As a result, grocery store shoppers likely won’t be affected, said Nick Paulson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s school of agriculture. A combination of crop insurance and the combination of economic factors that determine commodity prices means that weather-related impacts on crop yields generally «do not end up translating into such large fluctuations at the retail and consumer level.» , He said.

But «farmers are definitely not out of the woods yet,» Paulson warned.

“We are entering a critical period for moisture, particularly for corn, as we move into late July and August,” meaning rainfall levels in the coming weeks will be critical.

We live off surface moisture, as we call it: rain after rain, week after week.

Dan Basse, President of AgResource

Many growers still “live off surface moisture, as we call it, rain by rain, week by week,” said Dan Basse, president of AgResource, an agricultural advisory firm. At this rate, he expects corn and soybean yields to decline by only 3-5%, but he warned that another drought would cause big problems.

“It’s important that we don’t have lasting heat or dryness, or extreme heat, because the crops don’t have anything in the tank to fall back on,” he said.

According to him latest version of the National Climate Assessment.

Climate change, driven by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, is expected to increase rainfall variability, increasing the likelihood of crop failures from both drought and excessive rainfall. And while growing seasons could be lengthening in many places, the increasing frequency of high nighttime temperatures risks increasing stress for animals and affecting crop yields.

Additionally, the El Niño weather pattern is already in effect this year, bringing warmer temperatures on land and sea that can exacerbate extreme weather. TO study published in Science in May he estimated that El Niño alone could cost the global economy about $3 trillion this year, with disproportionate impacts on energy and agriculture.

Farmers in Texas are used to hot summers, but the severe heat wave that hit the state brought earlier-than-usual high temperatures, said Russell Boening, who grows corn and sorghum and raises beef and dairy cattle south of San Antonio. After a cooler than normal spring, temperatures topped 100 degrees in the first week of June.

A cotton farm in Lynn County, Tesas, on Friday, July 7, 2023.
Cotton plants on a farm in northwest Texas, which has experienced persistent triple-digit temperatures.Annie Rice/Avalanche-Journal/USA Today Network

“Is the climate changing? Yes. I don’t think there’s much of a case for that,” said Boening, who is also president of the Texas Farm Bureau. “We see heat like this every year,” he said, but “it usually doesn’t come until the end of July or August.”

After rain this spring helped protect his crops from heat damage, Boening said his main concern now is keeping his livestock and workers hydrated and safe as the scorching days roll by. «Is it going to last all the way until the end of August, or are we going to get some relief?» he said.

Climate change is flattening grain yields per capita around the world, Basse said, «which is not a good thing.» As a result, growers will need to add 20 million acres of farmland over the next five years, he said, particularly with the war in Ukraine, a major grain exporter, disrupting supplies.

Is the climate changing? Yes. I don’t think there’s much of an argument for that.

Russell Boening, president of the Texas Farm Bureau

“Right now, the whole world is looking very closely at Brazil” to help fill the gap, Basse said, as the country has been producing record grain crops and is emerging as the world’s leading corn exporter. «It has become the major gorilla in the room if you look at world grain production.»

Extreme weather is upsetting the math for growers almost everywhere, he continued, citing back-to-back droughts in Europe and a severe one in Argentina that began last winter. In this context, the rain that finally hit the American Midwest earlier this month was a lucky break “that at least gives us a breather,” Basse said. “For now, the United States has skated a mess. It was coming.

Some farmers say that this year is already better than 2022.

After harvesting only half of his crops last year, Chris Tanner, who grows corn, sorghum and oats and raises cattle in Norton, Kansas, was worried about a repeat crisis. By the first week of May, his wheat crop was barely as tall as a can of Coca-Cola, but late spring rain has since helped him reach a viable size. He now expects an average harvest.

A stunted wheat crop.
A stunted wheat crop, shown in early May, has recovered after recent rains.Courtesy of Chris Tanner

“We have learned, through conservation practices and other things, how to protect the soil and water and use the farming systems that we do to continue to produce food for a hungry world,” he said.

So far, Tanner expects commodity prices to remain stable this year, but he said he has compassion for growers in less-favored areas nearby.

“Being a farmer, you are an eternal optimist, or try to be, and you plant seeds in the ground and take care of them,” he said, “then watch the environment eat away at your livelihood.”

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