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Six take-home lessons from the 2012 drought

Wondering what to do after this year's drought? Here are six factors to consider for 2013.

1. Return to rotation

Those farmers who veered away from rotating corn with soybeans may return. The reason? Soybeans wait on rain, while corn withers on dry soil with even a hint of sand. In Brookston, Indiana, John Lehe says 6 inches of rain in August following a nearly rainless June and July helped make a decent soybean crop.

“Corn-on-corn struggled this year,” says Jeff Hartz, marketing director for Wyffels Hybrids. “It is just a more stressful environment than corn-on-soybeans.”

Still, any bump in soybean acres in 2013 will likely be small.

“A lot of farmers don't want to go away from continuous corn,” says Hartz. “There is just too much money to leave on the table.”

2. Don't ignore economics

Economics still favor corn, concurs Sheila Hebenstreit, an agronomist for West Central Co-op in Jefferson, Iowa.

“The drought of 2012 really exposed some of our lighter soils,” she says. “It's not a big amount, but some people say they'll switch some acres to soybeans because they will do better if it stays dry. Some say it will be a last-minute decision, like April 1, about corn or soybeans, depending on the USDA report and weather then.”

Corn-on-corn can take a yield hit compared to corn rotated with soybeans. Overall, there is a 10% average yield penalty across the board for corn-on-corn compared to corn rotated with soybeans, says Bruce Battles, a Syngenta solutions development manager. Still, yield decreases can widely vary.

“We have seen anywhere from a 4- to 5-bushel-per-acre yield hit to a 30- to 40-bushel-per-acre yield hit,” he says.

Top managers often experience no corn-on-corn yield penalty, says Hebenstreit.

“Our good corn-on-corn farmers are very committed to it, and it's profit-driven,” she says. “They really have the know-how to do it well, and they aren't going to switch. Their corn-on-corn yields are as good as corn-on-beans.”

Soybeans have had their production problems, too.

“In heavier soils like in north-central Iowa, soybeans have had a hard time with stagnant yield increases,” says Battles. “Planting corn is a financial decision. If farmers can only raise 50- to 55-bushel-per-acre beans while paying $350 per acre cash rent, they grow corn. Maybe corn- on-corn isn't perfect, but the spreadsheet works out better in those situations.”

3. Expect some dry days 

Art Douglas, professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University, won't predict another drought in 2013, even though all the right conditions are still in place. He says dry soil and early heat last summer could account for about 40% of the drought. This is the share of normal rainfall that is recycled water from surface evaporation.

Going forward, Douglas is mindful of ocean surface temperatures. While the glamour events are El Niños and La Niñas along the Pacific Ocean equator, he now points to those ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic and the eastern Pacific (between the U.S. west coast and Hawaii). The Atlantic event is several degrees warmer than normal, and the Pacific is colder – the coldest in 60 years. These factors point to drought in the U.S. midsection, as they are intact and can overpower a weak El Niño (warm water on the Pacific equator).

“The equator events come and go relatively quickly,” Douglas says. “But the Atlantic and eastern Pacific events tend to run in 25-year cycles. We're in the midst of that. We may not see another drought in 2013, but I do think we're in a pattern similar to the 1930s and 1950s, where we get more droughts than normal. I'd pick crop genetics, crop rotations, and tillage practices with that in mind.”

4. Don't assume the worst

There is one bright spot about 2012. Some hybrids revealed they can (somewhat) stand up to dry weather. Odds are you had one of these that did well during the 2012 drought. It might be tempting to assume the worst and plant that hybrid across most of your acres next year.

Don't. Instead, check the corn hybrid's yield over multiple years and locations. Remember, it's hard to assess a hybrid's true potential if drought drives down corn yields below 100 bushels per acre.

“You can't manage for an 80- or 100-bushel crop,” says Hartz. “Wipe clean what happened this year. The chances of another scenario like this year are minimal.”

5. Get the seed you want

That's among Hebenstreit's bigger concerns for 2013. The drought also hit seed fields across the Midwest, crimping production where it wasn't irrigated. Most seed companies say publicly that they have adequate supplies and will fill gaps from South America this winter.

“I worry about the quality of the seed that will be available and that all of the hybrids are available to meet demand,” says Hebenstreit. “Sometimes the South American seed gets here later than we would like to have it.”

She recommends lining up the seed you want as soon as possible and get it in hand.

Roger Elmore, Iowa State Extension corn specialist, agrees. “Certain lines – particularly the hot ones that many people want – might be short,” he says.

6. Hone your coping skills

Some of you won't remember 1988 because you weren't farming then. So 2012's relentless heat brought a fear for crop survival – even farm survival – you'd never experienced before.

“The only thing that replaces fear is faith and hope,” says Jolene Brown, a West Branch, Iowa, farmer and professional speaker on family issues (jolenebrown.com). “Farmers are good at hope. In the midst of a drought, as fear and anxiety mount, ask yourself, ‘Did I cause this? Or can I control it?’ ” she says. “The answer is, ‘No.’ So, get it off your shoulders and concentrate on your values. Hone your coping skills.”

Values involve your family, especially your children.

“You're creating a way of life for them that you really enjoy,” she says. “That didn't change because of one dry year. There are times that you need to put your blinders on and stop looking at your ugly fields and look at the other things, like why you are in ag to begin with. In farming, you can count on being challenged.

“I remember 1988 when my husband was a young farmer and was really discouraged,” Brown continues. “Every day he would say, ‘Well, we're one day closer to a rain.’ ”

Find ways to mitigate the risk of crop failure, such as crop insurance, Brown says. It lets you feel confident that the farm will survive. “It relieves a lot of anxiety on your farm,” she says. “It's like always having a Plan B in mind.”

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