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Drought 2.0: Staying ahead of an uncertain 2013

DANIEL LOOKER Updated: 03/25/2013 @ 10:24am Business Editor

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

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East Is East And West Is West 03/23/2013 @ 11:21pm Your observation that we may have two distinct corn belts this year seems right to me. I'm betting I'll be on the east side of the divide and get some moisture. Therefore, I'm keeping to my plans and population, but am putting on high levels of insurance just in case.

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