Conditions in the nation’s third-largest corn-growing and fourth-largest soybean-producing state are rapidly deteriorating due to worsening drought.
The entire state of Nebraska is now in a severe to exceptional drought. While 50-60% of the state’s corn growers have access to irrigation, a growing number could face water restrictions.
Already more than 1,100 growers, roughly 10% of the state’s total, who had been using surface water for irrigation, have been ordered by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to stop pumping due to low water levels in rivers and creeks.
"Most of the growers who have wells are still able to irrigate," says Greg Kruger, corn specialist with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. But some are pumping at lower levels, and their city counterparts are being forced to conserve.
"With the prolonged dryness, rural water suppliers are asking their customers to cut back on water use to conserve as water tables start to drop," says Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
Over the past week, precipitation across the state was spotty. "Drought-damaged corn acres continue being chopped for silage or cut for hay to make up for pastures, which are providing little or no grazing capacity," according to the July 30 Nebraska Weather and Crops Bulletin. "Irrigators continued their struggle with water demands and many livestock producers were hauling water due to dry ponds or moving stock close to home. Culling of livestock continues by producers with limited feed options." Sixty-seven percent of the state’s top soil is now rated very short of moisture.
Preparing for next year
Kruger is advising Nebraska producers with dry land corn to just leave corn reside in the field. "Even if the crop dies, the residue is very valuable," says Kruger. "Every tillage pass we make, we lose an inch of water."
For growers with enough irrigation and thus a salvageable crop, Kruger recommends harvesting the corn for forage if yield is down but quality is still okay. "Test it for nitrates before feeing it, though," he adds.
According to USDA’s latest Crop Progress report, only 35% of Nebraska’s corn is still rated good to excellent and 37% as of July 29 is now rated poor to very poor. A week earlier, 37% of Nebraska’s corn was in good to excellent condition and 33% was rated poor to very poor. As for soybeans, 24% were rated good to excellent and 38% in were in poor to very poor condition as of July 29. A week earlier, 28% of Nebraska’s beans were in good to excellent condition while 32% were rated poor to very poor.
"Not only has the dryness in Nebraska continued, but the heat has also played a large role in the deteriorating pastures and crop conditions," says Fuchs. "We don’t see much on the horizon as far as large scale changes in the forecast. The warm and dry conditions will persist into August and possibly into September."
While some people have compared the current drought to multiple-year droughts that occurred between 1930 and 1980, Fuchs says when the Corn Belt is looked at in isolation, this year’s drought is more akin to the single-year droughts that occurred between 1960 and 2000. But if the southern plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Kansas, which were mired in drought last year, too, are added to the equation, the picture becomes more concerning.