Last summer will be one farmers and ranchers may never forget. The worst drought in a half a century swept across the U.S. last year, severely impacting both livestock and crops. In a three-part series called "Dealing with Drought," AgDay’s Tyne Morgan will paint the painful picture the drought left, as well as give an update on the state of drought today.
2012 is a crop year many farmers would like to forget. Little rain and scorching temperatures had a crippling effect on plants and livestock across the country.
As the water shut off last summer, so did hopes for big yields. That followed a disappointing year for farmers along the Missouri River.
"We had about 75% of our acres under water by the first week of June," Fort Calhoun, Neb., farmer Jeff Shaner told AgDay while remembering such a trying year in 2011.
Going into planting 2012, portions of Shaner’s fields looked more like a beach than farmland. Unfortunately, the sand-covered land served as a reminder of the flooding in 2011.
"It’s very surprising to go from one year where there’s water to standing in your fields to the next where you can’t find a rain," says Shaner when describing the stark difference from 2011 to 2012.
The natural disaster not only demolished Shaner’s crop in 2011, but left difficult growing conditions to start 2012.
"About 10% of our acres we won't be able to put back into production for the crop year in 2012," Shaner told AgDay last spring.
The saving grace for many farmers’ corn crop last year came through one major resource—irrigation.
"This pivot here paid for itself in the extra crops," says Rich Scheve, a farmer in Beatrice, Neb.
He says he learned firsthand how vital irrigation is when Mother Nature simply doesn’t come through.
"if it wasn’t for that, all of our crops would have been a disaster out in this area," explains Scheve.
The drought took its toll on crops. By the middle of September, more than two thousand counties had been declared disaster areas by USDA. And over the summer, for those who had it, irrigation became the only source of water for many farmers across the U.S.
"Our irrigated, which is surprisingly running slightly better than normal," Scheve told us last fall. "Normally we get 180 (bu. per acre) to 190. This year we’re running 190 to 200."
That out-yielded his dryland acres by well over 100 bu. per acre.
It’s not just the drought and heat on the 2012 record books. Crop insurance payments also hit new highs. The latest report from the National Crop Insurance Services shows indemnity payments are now totaling more than $15.4 billion for the 2012 crop year.
The drought also drained farmers’ attitudes. By harvest it seemed pessimism outweighed reality as most farmers’ yield expectations were low after suffering through such a miserable summer. When the grain finally hit the bin, tones changed as many farmers, including Iowa farmer Lance Scott, responded the same when asked about yields.
"Corn yields are actually better than anticipated, but of about 20 or 30 bu.," says Scott. "We’ve been pleasantly surprised for the summer and lack of rain we’ve had, we’ve been in pretty good shape."
While overall yields beat many farmers’ expectations, the below average grain output had a ripple effect and cut deep for those relying on grain.
We were told ethanol plants in states like Missouri and Illinois were forced to source grain from areas like Minnesota. It even caused the POET ethanol plant in Macon, Mo., to shut its doors.
The pain this winter didn’t stop there. The Mississippi River depleted to critical levels threatening to halt commerce along the major shipping vein. This caused barge companies and operators to worry about the impact a river closure would have on their business.
"Restricted tow sizes, restricted draft, less tons per tow boat, less tons per barge, means you need more barges and more tow boats to move the same amount of tonnage," says Marty Hettel of AEP River Operations in St. Louis.
Thanks to continues dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a little moisture late winter, the river never closed.
Despite the positives, for farmers like Jeff Shaner, the last two years have been painful memories that he hopes can be washed away with a recovery year in 2013.