AMBOY - A dry spell that has continued throughout much of the Midwest this summer - including Illinois - has drawn national attention as farmers in a number of states are expressing serious concern over their corn and bean crops. In Illinois, 26 southern counties have already been granted a "disaster designation" because of severe drought and last week, Governor Pat Quinn requested the addition of seven central Illinois counties. In Lee County, the situation appears to be somewhat less severe - at least for now.
Jeff Mathesius, field agronomist with Pioneer, said it is still too early to know what effect the weather will have on yields in his coverage area, which includes Lee, Bureau and LaSalle counties and continues all the way to the Indiana border. Mathesius explained that it is difficult to generalize about such a large area because of variations in soil type as well as very spotty and sporadic rainfall.
In the local counties, Mathesius said areas that got rain during the past few weeks are definitely better off. But comparing the local drought to the rest of the state, he said the crops around here are in much better shape.
In some southern Illinois counties, conditions were so poor that farmers have already plowed under their cornfields. Mathesius explained that this extreme step was taken because the corn in those counties had actually died and there was no potential for it to develop. "They haven't had any rain at all," he emphasized. "In this area, we are not anywhere close to plowing under fields."
Ed Doughty, who farms in LaSalle County, agreed that even the brief, scattered showers in this area have helped keep the crops viable. "Even a half-inch of rain makes a difference," Doughty said.
Although Doughty believes it is too early to predict exact yields, he said yields have been compromised by the drought. The lack of rain has also affected the appearance of local fields with shorter corn and plants that look wilted. "Varieties that normally grow 10 to 12 feet tall are only six to eight feet this year because of the drought," he said. "The plants are putting all their energy into trying to develop ears of corn instead of getting tall."
As for the wilted look of some plants, Doughty explained that the leaves curl up to conserve moisture, which is a defense mechanism bred into drought resistant corn varieties. "It doesn't mean the corn is dying, it means the plant is trying to save itself," he said.
Doughty pointed out that it becomes a concern when cornstalks start drying out at the bottom, which means the stalk is starting to die. "The plant is putting all its energy in trying to form that ear of corn," he said. "As the stalk dries, it's less and less capable of carrying moisture up to the ear and those yields are really compromised."
For the most part, the local fields still appear green and healthy, which Mathesius said indicates no nitrogen loss. "When we have heavy rains, the nitrogen gets washed away but because that has not happened, the plants are still green," he said.
In addition to variations in rainfall and soil type, Doughty said farmers plant many different varieties of corn to spread out the risk and some of those varieties are drought resistant. "If you have a normal year with good rains and good warm temperatures, the drought resistant corn doesn't produce as good a yield," he explained. "But if you planted a bunch of that this year, your yield is going to be better."
Although Doughty believes it is too soon to tell what the yields will be in the local area, in general he expects them to be below normal. "Rain will help but we're not going to have the normal yields even if it starts raining," he said.
Even though a normal yield is unlikely at this point, Mathesius said the best thing that could happen now is to get rain. "The fields are finishing pollination and the need for water is greater," he explained.
Doughty agreed. "If we don't get any more rainfall from here to harvest, we're going to have tiny little kernels of corn and the beans are going to be about the size of BBs," he said. "I know this because my grandparents farmed in northwestern Missouri and they had a lot of drought years like this."
As for sweet corn, Doughty said the local crop should be okay. "It will be less than normal but we will have plenty of sweet corn around here because it hasn't dried up yet," he said.
While the extent of the drought varies throughout Illinois, as of July 12 the entire state was considered in drought according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In addition, the area of "severe drought" was expanded as far north as Livingston and Woodford counties and also along the Illinois-Wisconsin border.
Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel said the weather statistics for July 1-11 show why the drought worsened so quickly in the state. The statewide average precipitation was 0.5 inches, just 37 percent of normal for the first 11 days of July. At the same time, the statewide average temperature was 83.1 degrees, which is 7.5 degrees above normal.
Additionally, statistics for the entire first half of 2012 showed it to be the sixth driest on record. Precipitation throughout the state averaged just 12.6 inches for the January through June period - nearly seven inches below normal. The lack of rain was compounded by above normal temperatures every month this year. The statewide average of 52.8 degrees for the past six months is the warmest on record.
On Monday, the Illinois Ag Statistics Service reported that crop conditions are worsening across the state. For the first time this year, no Illinois corn is rated in excellent condition and only 7 percent is rated in good condition. Of the remaining crops, 27 percent are rated "fair," 30 percent "poor" and 36 percent "very poor."
Soybean conditions in Illinois fared somewhat better in the most recent report with 1 percent rated "excellent," 12 percent "good," 38 percent "fair," 25 percent "poor" and 24 percent "very poor."
Information on drought conditions in Illinois, disaster declarations and other related information is available online at Drought.Illinois.gov. The website includes quick access to resources such as the Department of Agriculture's "Illinois Hay Directory," which can help Illinois producers locate hay to feed their livestock since many pastures were badly damaged this year. Printed copies of the Hay Directory also are available by calling (217) 782-4925.
For now, all farmers can do is continue hoping for rain, which would be a best-case scenario. "There is still very good potential in this area if we get rain," Mathesius emphasized. "But if we do not get any rain, there will be a dramatically reduced yield. It will not be a good crop."