The Ottumwa Courier

July 18, 2012

Drought will ‘get worse before it gets better’

Farmers: Assistance needs to speed up, new Farm Bill needed, livestock industry could be most severely impacted.

Courier Staff Writer

MOUNT PLEASANT — Drought likes company.

Harry Hillaker, state climatologist, said the higher the temperatures, the more everything dries out, the more humidity there is, and “it continues to feed on itself.”

He said the earliest Iowans could feel a change is in August.

“Things are probably going to get worse before they get better,” he said.

Hillaker joined government leaders — including Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds — farming association presidents, area farmers and concerned consumers in a forum regarding Iowa’s drought in the Mount Pleasant High School gymnasium Tuesday morning.

Mark Schouten, director of the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he didn’t expect to solve the drought problem Tuesday morning, but to foster a dialogue with the public about the nature and extent of the problem, what resources are available and “our plan of attack if things in fact, do get worse.”

This is the first year since 1988 Americans have seen a drought on a national scale, Hillaker said, though this year’s is not quite as severe.

Every Iowa county has been below normal in rainfall since the beginning of June, Hillaker said.

“On a national scale, we’re not alone, though Iowa is actually better off than much of the Corn Belt,” Hillaker said. “But the center of the heat is right over us, and we’ve had the worst of it in comparison to normal.”

At this time of the year, the normal high temperature is 86 degrees. Instead, Iowa is seeing 100-degree weather.

A drought work group formed in February through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship by Branstad worked to “enhance coordination between state agencies” due to little snow this winter and the potential for drought conditions this summer.

Bob Wegand, of the Farm Service Agency of the USDA, said it’s never been more important for farmers to let their congressional representatives know what they need from the Farm Bill.

“We need a new Farm Bill,” said Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development state director. “Simply extending it is not the answer.”

Branstad said the Farm Bill has passed through the U.S. Senate and is out of committee in the U.S. House, and it is “one of the few things that could get done” before the November election.

“Nearly 90 percent of row crop producers in Iowa are covered by insurance,” Wegand said. “But we don’t have such policies for livestock producers.”

In order to authorize emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage prior to Aug. 2, a county must meet the 40-40 rule, meaning they’re at a 40 percent or more loss in normal hay and pasture production and are 40 percent or more below normal rainfall.

While there are Iowa counties that meet this criteria, Wegand said, they have not yet been approved.

“My concern is that we come up with a lot of great assistance programs, but if we don’t get them out in a timely fashion, they don’t do us any good,” said Pella farmer Dennis Bogaards.

Branstad said he’s sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, hoping to quickly secure drought designation for affected Iowa counties.

Columbus Junction farmer Wayne Humphreys stood before the panel holding corn stalks he brought in from his farm.

Out of a national crop of 13 billion bushels of corn this year, Iowa is expected to produce nearly 20 percent of that, Humphreys said. And its availability is crucial, he said, since it affects many products and industries, from livestock to ethanol to world trade.

“This is no longer a corn plant; this is a weed,” Humphreys said, holding up a yellowed, short corn stalk.

Another of his corn stalks is also probably not harvestable, he said, after showing the panel an ear of corn which will most likely abort all of its kernels.

Craig Hill, president of Iowa Farm Bureau, said 40 percent of Iowa’s production is in soybeans.

“But the most severely impacted group, I think, would be our livestock,” Hill said. “With crop producers, most of us are protected with some form of crop insurance.”

Pork producers have no form of income protection against higher feed costs, said Bill Tentinger, president of the Iowa Pork Producer’s Association. December futures have risen over $2 a bushel, and soybean yields have risen over $100 a ton, he said.

“Higher feed prices have to be absorbed by the pork industry, causing a collapse in margins,” he said. “A collapse in margins results in financial losses, causing discouragement and frustration among producers. I believe liquidation will occur this summer and fall.”

And over time, pork prices will rise to compensate for higher feed prices, he said.

“Plain common sense tells us this will take a year or more to turn around,” he said. “The current situation is worse by the day, and policymakers need to come up with a stocks-to-use policy to level the playing field.”

Groundwater levels a concern

Tim Hall, bureau chief of Iowa Geological and Water Survey and the coordinator of the drought work group, said a water summary update is issued every second Thursday to give the public a snapshot of precipitation and trends from the previous two weeks.

The report issued Thursday showed stream flow conditions below normal for two-thirds of the state, Hall said. Some streams are even flowing less than 10 percent of their typical flow.

“Shallow groundwater levels are a concern for the IDNR,” Hall said. “Right now, in the southeast part of the state, shallow groundwaters are a concern. They’ve got to levels where they’re beginning to approach seasonal, if not historic, lows.

“We’re concerned for the communities that get water from shallow groundwater next to the rivers. They’re the ones who tend to see problems with dry conditions first.”

Soybeans susceptible to insects, disease

John Heisdorffer, director of the Iowa Soybean Association for District 9, said while soybeans still have time, he has heard from field staff that they’re starting to see leaves on the ground, “which tells me it’s getting pretty dry out.”

In the next couple of weeks, it’s possible farmers could see spider mites in the beans and grasshoppers in the fields.

And fertilizer dealers are telling farmers to lock in prices for next year. But if farmers don’t know if they will get a crop this year or what theirs will look like next year, how can they make a decision, Heisdorffer asked.

“The fear is that if the farmer does not order from the fertilizer dealer, the dealer does not order from his supplier, and there will be a shortage next spring,” he said.

Livestock concerns

Andy Hora, an Iowa Farm Bureau board member representing southeast Iowa from Bloomfield to Muscatine, said there is a lot of livestock in southeast Iowa, including Washington County, “one of the biggest livestock-producing counties in the world.”

But he said there exists an inverse relationship for the feeder, since as grain goes up, prices go down, affecting the producer’s financial ability to buy the inputs they need.

“For the national audience, you could pay much more next year for a steak — if you can get it,” Hora said.