By Adam Austing, UMN Extension Educator
It is no secret that the majority of Minnesota is facing drought conditions during this summer of 2021. Extreme heat combined with an extreme lack of moisture is taking its toll on plants, animals, and humans alike. In a July 29 update, the U.S. Drought Monitor (www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu) showed that Wright County was split into two different categories. The northwestern part of the county has been designated as an extreme drought area, while the rest of the county is considered to be in severe drought.
It’s important to note that this year has brought a lot of variability in rainfall in small geographic areas. Some of us have been lucky enough to have tiny blobs of precipitation go over their fields, although most of us have not. I’ve heard it be referred to as the “rain lottery.” For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that most Wright County farmers are in desperate need of rain. Many farmers are starting to make difficult decisions on how they will manage crops for the remainder of the season.
The ancestors of modern corn originated in the hot and dry regions of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. That gives it an inherent advantage in dry weather. That being said, it’s been too hot, too dry, for far too long for even a crop that is known for its resiliency. Except for irrigated fields, pretty much every corn field in Wright County is showing significant signs of drought stress. This is at a time that corn is finishing up pollination. Before, and even more so after, pollination is the time when corn uses the most water. In a year when water is not available, it’s expected to cause some issues. Pollination may be poor, which will lead to shorter cobs with fewer kernels. Even if pollination goes well, the corn may start aborting kernels if it feels that it doesn’t have the necessary moisture available. Lastly, kernels may end up smaller at the end of the year, leading to low test weights and less revenue for the farmer.
At this point, we know yields will be significantly reduced at the very least. If this weather pattern doesn’t break, some fields may yield next to nothing. Some farmers are considering chopping some corn acres for silage instead of grain. This may be especially useful in a year when farmers raising livestock are running short on options for feeding animals. However, heavily stressed plants can contain lots of nitrates, which can be unfit to feed to animals. Some dairy farmers are considering harvesting silage soon; about a month earlier than normal.
Soybeans are another very resilient crop. They kind of have a reputation for growing no matter the situation- just put them in the ground and they’ll be fine. This year is a testament to the fact that soybeans still need attention, and water, to be successful. When things were dry earlier in the growing season, soybeans were good at “sitting still” while they patiently waited for rain. As we get later into the summer, the crop has no choice but to start doing what they can to reproduce, even though it will undoubtedly result in lower yields. In extreme cases, some plants may be too short and will grow bean pods lower than where combines can consistently harvest them.
We also like soybeans for their ability to fix nitrogen. The crop will use much of that itself, but there is usually a notable amount leftover for the following year’s crop to utilize. The soybeans will fix much less nitrogen in dry conditions, so this could mean higher nitrogen fertilizer costs for next year’s crop.
Hay and alfalfa
Yields from second and third cutting alfalfa crops were very poor, leaving farmers in need of more feed for their animals. Some fields have even gone dormant because the moisture they need to carry on is unavailable. Because of this, hay prices are skyrocketing, leading livestock farmers to make difficult decisions. Do you pay a premium for hay to feed your animals, or do you start selling parts of your herd to reduce the amount of hay you need? If you’re looking for a silver lining, some farmers have been able to harvest hay from ditches and areas that are usually inaccessible due to wetness. This is just a short-term reprieve, though, and not a long-term solution.
Along with this, pastures are also looking bad and many have gone dormant. This leads to farmers feeding more hay now, which will further exacerbate the need for hay over the winter. It’s important that farmers pull their animals off dormant pastures. It could cause long-term damage with very little short-term benefit.
Our small grain crops, like wheat and oats, are being harvested as we wrap up July. This is slightly early, but definitely not unheard of. They too felt the heat this summer, and yields are expected to be way down. Many farmers are bracing for yields half of what they got last year.
Fingers crossed, but it doesn’t look like our weather patterns will be drastically changing soon. Farmers are starting to ask the tough questions. When do I harvest? How do I harvest? If I am harvesting fields in late July or early August, what should I do with my fields for the remainder of the growing season? Where can I cut costs, and where can I maximize revenue? Questions regarding crop production and farm management decisions can be addressed to Adam Austing with Wright County Extension: firstname.lastname@example.org or (320) 249-5929.