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Western U.S. drought taking its toll on farmers’ crops and cattle

It has been a really rough several years for farmers in the western United States and despite the above-normal rain to parts of the southern Plains, Midwest, and Southeast to Northeast, the continued dryness in the West and northern Plains has only expanded the drought and abnormal dryness,

While families living in urban areas may be fairing well, even with drought conditions, it is the farmers and ranchers outside the city centers who are hurting. We can also add the families living in a number of rural communities who are now wondering if their drinking water resources will last until better times.

This scenario is playing out in Missouri, western Colorado, Iowa, northeastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, and even as far as Maine. And we’re not taking into consideration the Pacific Northwest and its horrific wildfire season, made worse by drought and excessively dry conditions.


U.S. Drought Monitor

Almost all of Missouri is experiencing drought
Missouri is the only Midwestern state with several counties in the northwestern part of the state experiencing “exceptional” drought conditions. Some parts of Kansas also are extremely dry, but most of Illinois and Nebraska, and the northern half of Iowa are actually drought-free.

“That isolated nature really hurts some corn growers because they’re competing against other farmers in the Midwest that have had bumper crops,” said Mark Fuchs, hydrologist for the National Weather Service office near St. Louis. “That puts a lot of them on the brink of financial ruin.”

The USDA lists soil moisture as “short” or “very short” in 80 percent of Missouri, nearly half the corn crop is considered “poor” or “very poor.” Three-quarters of the state’s pastures are in poor or very poor conditions, according to the USDA report. This has forced farmers to feed their cattle hay, normally stored for winter use, and in turn, the hay crop is down 35 percent from normal.

Farmers growing corn crops may have to change to less moisture-loving crops  like wheat.

Farmers growing corn crops may have to change to less moisture-loving crops, like wheat.
MIT News Office

Drought conditions get worse in Minnesota and North Dakota
The U.S. Drought Monitor classified northeastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota as “abnormally dry.” To be more specific, all counties in northeast North Dakota are now classified as abnormally dry, along with Northwest Minnesota.

Minnesota is now facing the potential for an even larger drought, with 41 percent of the state now is classified as being abnormally dry, up from just 18 percent last week, while 56 percent of North Dakota is classified as abnormally dry, up 26 percent from the previous week.

Looking at Maine’s groundwater supply
Many people are keeping an eye on their wells as conditions remain dry or abnormally dry over much of Maine this summer. Actually, this is the state’s third summer of drought conditions, and it is getting to be a serious problem with regards to the state’s groundwater supply.

People with wells are keeping an eye on groundwater levels in Maine.

People with wells are keeping an eye on groundwater levels in Maine.

“People are starting to run out of water,” said Ryan Gordon, a hydrogeologist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. “It’s going to affect more people as drought [conditions] for the third summer in a row cover a lot of the state.”

Now with this situation, it applies to wells, either dug by hand or drilled. As NOAA points out, “conditions are worsening in southern Maine and remaining unchanged for the rest of the state with lack of meaningful precipitation” that would replenish groundwater supplies. Most cities have a municipal water supply and those are not in danger.

Taking everything into account
I read with interest the latest USDA crop progress report put out this month. The USDA indicated that the current corn crop’s quality has held steady from the week prior, at 72 percent rated in “good-to-excellent condition” – and the current soybean crop’s quality ticked a percentage point higher, reaching 70 percent good-to-excellent.

Beef cattle on a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle

Beef cattle on a feedlot in the Texas Panhandle
H2O (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Farm Futures senior grain market analyst Bryce Knorr did take the time to point out that the corn crop had not done well in western states, saying, “Though corn conditions varied sharply between eastern and western states, overall yield potential bounced back by around six-tenths of a bushel nationwide.”

And another interesting observation by the USDA in its analysis – This year’s corn crop continues to mature faster than average. Well, believe it or not, but this is not a good sign, overall. Many farmers in western states also commented on this happening to their crops, but it was because of little rain followed by extensive drying of the soil moisture.

The bottom line is this – Drought is having an impact on farmers and ranchers in this country. Those impacts are forcing some families to sell their cattle, take second jobs, leave dying crops in the field and in many cases, they have the added worry of their water sources drying up. It is not a pretty picture.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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