David Blough had just put in a tough, scalding day handling hay on one of the four farms he operates. He wiped the sweat from his face with his shirt and looked west toward the edge of a cornfield being irrigated.
What he saw was money pouring out of the spray nozzles. He said each time his irrigation system makes a complete pivot in a field, it cost’s him $700.
“But, the alternative is no crop,” he said.
Blough is one of thousands of Indiana farmers who are coping with a severe drought this summer. Coupled with the record high heat the state has experienced in the past weeks, the drought has withered crops from Illinois to Ohio.
Irrigation does help, Blough said, but even with groundwater sprayed by expensive diesel-powered pumps keeping corn alive and growing, yields will be down.
He explained that groundwater doesn’t contain any nitrogen, an effective fertilizer for all crops. In contrast, rainfall and lightning from a thunderstorm adds nitrogen to the soil, according to Blough.
“Irrigators — their crops are growing but you talk to some of those folks and they are simply exhausted,” said Elkhart County Purdue Extension educator Jeff Burbrink. “That comes at a cost too. They have to run electric motors or pump fuel to get the crop up. Some people have been irrigating since about when they planted it.”
He said the record heat has been on everyone’s mind this past week.
“It affects so many things, plus it just drains you,” Burbrink said.
As corn pollinates and sets tassels in the summer, it needs one inch of rainfall weekly, Blough said. But June was one of the driest on record in Elkhart County, with only 1.20 inches of rain reaching the dusty ground. The normal June average is 3.74 inches. The cumulative precipitation this year is 12.56 inches, which is 4.68 inches below normal, according to the local National Weather Service observers. To top off the misery, the average temperature in June was 71.4 degrees, which is 1.7 degrees above normal.
The recent spate of 100-plus temperature days began June 28 when it reached 101. Then, for the past four days temperatures topped 100.
“There is no way we are going to turn this year around,” Blough said.
Blough expects some farmers will be using their stunted corn for silage to feed their cattle. He also expects there will be a hay shortage because grasses and other pasture plants have dried up.
“We will have enough feed for our stock, but not enough grain,” he said of his personal situation.
His stock consists of 185 heifers he is bringing to maturity for his dairy operation.
Burbrink said farmers across the area are hurting from the drought.
“The dairy farmers, for instance,” Burbrink said. “A lot of folks were getting three to four tons of hay the first cutting and the second cutting they got 1.5 tons, if they were lucky. The forage supply is dropping dramatically right now.”
Like Blough, he expects farmers to begin chopping their stressed corn crops for silage. But, Burbrink said, that process has to be done exactly right to allow the cut corn to ferment. The fermentation preserves the cut corn.
Another factor for corn growers is some of the corn attempted to set tassels during the heat wave.
“We are having drought stress and every four or five days you lose 10 percent of the yield,” Burbrink said. And the drought adds another 5 percent loss.
“Pretty soon, that adds up,” he said.
Burbrink and Blough each said they have noticed white corn plants in the county. Blough said the plants turn white because the intense sun has burned the chlorophyll out of them.
There’s still hope for a good soybean crop if rain arrives soon, according to Burbrink. He said the bean plants are suffering but yields won’t be significantly reduced until the plants begin to set bean pods. He said some beans in Elkhart County are in flower right now.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects food prices will rise by as much as 3.5 percent beginning late this year due to the drought.
The Purdue research cooperative forecasts that if the drought continues through August — and it shows no sign of letting up — crop losses could be as great as they were during the 1988 drought, when corn and soybean production plummeted by about 30 percent.
Associated Press writer Charles Wilson contributed to this article.