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Drought made Midwest and Great Plains crops look ‘like death.’ Recent rains bring some hope

Ryan Krenk, a farmer outside of Seward, Nebraska, and Jenny Rees, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, examine one of Krenk’s corn fields on July 11, 2023. Before the early July rainfall, all of Krenk’s corn was as short as the smallest plants in this patch.

Dryness in the Great Plains began spreading east this year, affecting much of the Midwest and endangering crops, livestock and river shipping. Recent rains have been a god-send, but will it be enough to loosen the years-long drought?

Around the end of June, Ryan Krenk didn’t want to even look at his corn fields.

Deep dryness had scorched the crop in southeast Nebraska. The plants had a grayish hue instead of the usual vibrant green and were just touching his calf or even ankle when they should have been above his head.

“All I really wanted to do was just go home and not look at it,” Krenk said. “Because it was sickening, just absolutely sickening. I didn’t want the memory.”

 Short, straggly corn plants grow in a patchy area of a corn field.
The corn crop in southeast Nebraska was struggling before recent rains helped it grow and green up. Jenny Rees / Nebraska Extension

As the weeks ticked by without any rainfall, Krenk was sure the corn would die.

“It looked like death,” he said. “And I said ‘I don’t think it’s going to see tomorrow.’ And it’s still somehow here, several tomorrows later.”

Early July rains provided a lifeline to many crops in the Midwest and Great Plains. Now Krenk’s corn is taller and greener.

“The turnaround is magical,” he said. “But we need more rain, that’s for sure. We are by far not out of the woods. Another dry week and we’re right back where we were.”

 A man in a red shirt, baseball cap and glasses stands in a corn field and looks to the side, standing among the corn plants.
Ryan Krenk stands in one of his corn fields outside of Seward, Nebraska. The crops had been withering before recent precipitation helped them green up and grow. He said he felt disbelief when the rain finally came after such a long dry stretch. “It had been so long coming that you couldn’t believe it was happening.” Elizabeth Rembert / Harvest Public Media

It will take consistent precipitation to nourish crops and improve the drought, which has been baking soil and plants for years in portions of the Midwest and Great Plains.

The region went into this summer with a lack of soil moisture that Jenny Rees, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said was unlike anything she’d witnessed.

“I’ve never seen a year where we started the season with no subsoil moisture,” she said. “Even in the 2012 drought we had a bit of a head start with some subsoil moisture. This year is at a whole other level because we didn’t have that.”

Then Mother Nature dealt an incredibly dry May and June — the time when many states can get up to 60% of their annual precipitation.

“When you miss precipitation during those two months, you know there’s going to be trouble,” said Doug Kluck, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We didn’t have that moisture to bank for later in the summer when things typically get even drier.”

 A map of the United States shows the location and severity of drought conditions throughout the country.
Recent rains have improved dry conditions in parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Illinois, but it will take consistent moisture for the years-long dry spell to stop hurting crops. Map Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

At this point, parts of the Midwest and Great Plains are dealing with drought that’s similar to a chronic cold. Dryness has been lurking for years and nagging at farmers as they’ve raised their crops and livestock.

Dry weather quickly became drought, and now it will take a lot of rain to ease symptoms.

“Yes, we’re having some rains,” Kluck said. “But gosh, give it a week. And what we see is pretty much going to be gone. A lot of it’s going to get used by the plants and everything growing right now.”

John Ackerman said he always feels blessed to farm, but it’s been a challenging year near the central Illinois city of Morton.

As the drought spread east from Kansas and Nebraska, Ackerman’s fields went 50 days without measurable rain. He looked at the forecast every single day, worried that the soil might be too dry to plant his pumpkins.

Ackerman ended up planting the seeds much deeper in the soil, to help them find moisture. That makes it harder for the plant to grow up through the dirt, but luckily the recent rains have helped the plants poke through the ground.

“Part of the improvement is also my mood,” he said. “My wife says I’m slightly less grumpy than I’ve been over the last month, so that’s a win.”

 A close-up picture of a corn stalk that’s coated in water. A stormy sky is in the background.
Rain soaks corn near Council Bluffs, Iowa on July 7, 2023. Jenny Rees, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the precipitation improved crops and moods. “The smiles on the farmer’s faces that day were just amazing,” she said. Elizabeth Rembert / Harvest Public Media

It’s a win for the crops, too. But Ackerman, who also grows corn and soybeans, said he’s anticipating his corn harvest could be 30% lower than what he’d like.

Lasting dry conditions may hurt harvests across much of the Corn Belt, according to Krista Swanson, an agriculture economist with the National Corn Growers Association.

“Our top four corn producing states are Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota,” she said. “And virtually all are in drought conditions at some rating.”

The corn needs steady rains, especially during its tasseling and pollination phases. And come August, it will be important for soybeans to have moisture.

More than just corn

It’s not just crops that are hurting. Austin Schweitzer has been dealing with years of dryness at Schweitzer Red Angus near Milford, Nebraska, where he keeps and breeds cattle.

Typically Schweitzer would be letting his herd graze in fields, but the drought has withered away the pasture grasses. He’s brought some cattle into the feedlot he also runs and sold some animals he’d typically keep for another year or two.

Extra feed costs and drought insurance bills are pushing Schweitzer’s operation expenses to double that of a normal year at this point.

“It’s really challenging,” he said. “If you’re going to hang on through this, your only option is to try something different and buckle up, I guess.”

The lack of pasture grasses is forcing some ranchers and cattle feeders to use hay when they’d usually let their animals graze.

That could mean future supply problems, according to Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, who said many ranchers were feeding hay to their cattle in June.

“Normally we would not start feeding hay until the fall,” Chinn said. “So this is a really critical need for our cattlemen and women to be able to find hay and make sure their water supplies are going to be adequate to carry them into the fall.”

Low water levels are also causing problems on parts of the Mississippi River. The river level has been around 10 feet below normal for this time of year at St. Louis and got low enough in late June to beat out a record set in 1988.

“We haven’t even reached the low flow season yet, which doesn’t usually start until the fall,” said Anna Wolverton, a meteorologist who works with the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers on the river. “So the fact that we’re seeing these low flows now is kind of concerning.”

A parched Mississippi River could jeopardize transportation for crops and other goods, and push shipping onto less efficient methods: one typical towboat can transport the volume of about 1,050 semi-trucks.

 A map of the United States shows areas where drought will persist, improve or develop.

Luckily, there are good reasons to be optimistic. The National Weather Service is predicting there’s a chance the region could receive some showers through July 21, with areas in eastern Kansas through Ohio getting the most substantial rainfall.

“Is it enough to alleviate drought everywhere? No,” Kluck said. “But it might start improving by a category or two.”

Climatologists are also calling for a climate pattern called El Niño, which raises the likelihood of cooler, wetter weather occurring in the middle of the country during late summer to early fall.

“If El Niño gets its act together, and we start being influenced by it, we are more likely to see wet conditions across the central U.S., maybe even the north central U.S. and cooler conditions as well,” Kluck said. “It’s not likely that drought will get worse in 2024 in those areas.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.
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Harvest Public Media

Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

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