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Drought 2.0: Staying ahead of an uncertain 2013

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After the 2012 drought, the nation's worst since the 1950s, some farmers are preparing for a tough 2013. Winter wasn’t encouraging. Weekly U.S. Drought Monitor maps showed exceptional drought – the worst – hanging on in the Great Plains. There, farmers are adapting.

“We’re dropping the dryland corn,” says Ryan Speer, whose Bentley, Kansas, farm has planted up to 1,000 acres of it for eight years. Instead of the normal 30 inches of rainfall, his area got 16 in 2011 and 20 inches last year. Corn would be “starting out from zero with no subsoil moisture and more likely doomed to fail,” he says.

He’s switching those acres to soybeans. “We’ll plant the soybeans later to try to avoid the heat,” he says. Late-May or early-June seeding gives the beans a chance to benefit from late-summer rain. His irrigated corn will have a lower population.

“We backed it off a couple thousand, but nothing drastic,” from 33,000 to 31,000 per acre, he says.

Jordan Qualm’s Sherman, South Dakota, dryland farm had timely rains in 2012. Conditions now warrant caution. “We put a lot of tile in the ground this fall. All the way down, 4 feet, it’s dry,” he says. “I haven’t been farming that long, but by far, it’s the driest I’ve seen it.”

His big change for 2013 is a 50% cut in continuous corn. “We plant a lot of corn-on-corn, and I’m not going to do as much this year,” he says. Those acres will shift to soybeans. He may also cut corn plant population by 5%. He’ll go ahead with plans for seeding alfalfa, even though it needs normal rainfall for a good stand. “You can’t really change everything based on a worst-case scenario,” he says.

Lowering corn plant population has become the norm for Harold Grall of Dumas, Texas, where water for irrigation is less abundant.

“Over the years, we’ve been playing with plant population, and we’ve dropped it quite a bit,” he says. Well water use during the growing season has dropped from 27 inches to about 23 inches. Over the last decade he has cut population from a top of 32,000 to 26,000 or less. Still, he coaxes yields of 200 to 240 bushels in a normal year (which he hasn’t seen since 2010).

He’s also considering a higher coverage level of revenue insurance. In his area, “people are going from 65%, which is what most people use, going to an 80% multiperil, and dropping hail insurance,” he says. “If it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t hail.”

Not everyone in the Great Plains is making big changes. Mark Watson grows both irrigated and dryland corn near Alliance, Nebraska, where 15 inches of rainfall is normal.

“We have little subsoil moisture. Between now and the end of April, if we get 3 to 4 inches of rain, we’ll be in good shape,” he says. “A lot of our climate depends on how much snow the mountains get.”

Planning for normal weather

At the other end of the Corn Belt winter brought rain. Lloyd Gordon of Wellington, Ohio, plans no big changes for his dairy farm’s corn, soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa. “We’re not really going to change our population. As we get into the season, we’ll see what happens. We’re pretty optimistic,” he says. “Our ground moisture is as wet as it normally gets.”

Indiana, too, is recovering. “We haven’t really been frozen,” says George Kakasuleff, who farms near Cicero. “When the rain came, it was able to soak in.” He isn’t making big changes, either.

Art Lehmann in Strawn, Illinois, had some tiles running after midwinter rains. That follows a tough 2012, when he had half of a normal corn yield or less and a moisture deficit. In the long run, he may switch to a 50-50 corn/soybean rotation.

For now, he plans to stay with two-thirds corn, which is fed to his hogs. For crop insurance, he says, “We’re thinking we might go to 85% coverage for this next year because it’s still dry here.” Drought prompted Don Vilwock of

Edwardsport, Indiana, to add two more bottomland center pivots he was already considering.

“We raise all white corn, and for grain quality, that pivot helps with that,” he says. Last year saw dramatic yield differences, too – up to 240 bushels per irrigated acre and 0 to 10 bushels on the dry corners. All of his dryland averaged about 80 bushels.

He and his longtime employee, Jason Misiniec, will likely cut plant populations 2,000 per acre on both dry and irrigated cornfields. The mix will shift slightly from two-thirds corn, one-third beans to a 60:40 ratio. They’re also giving credit for P and K not used by last year’s corn. They will use variable-rate planting and fertilizer to lower rates on less productive soils.

In spite of the challenges from last year, Vilwock considers himself lucky. “I sure have empathy for our farmer friends in the Plains,” he says. “Some of them have had four years of drought.”

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