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Drought hardiness

The drought is worrying, and bringing with a classic weather market response resulting in record corn prices. USDA dropped its yield forecast by 20 bushels per acre in the last monthly supply/demand report.
By Susanne Retka Schill | July 23, 2012

The drought is worrying, and bringing with a classic weather market response resulting in record corn prices. USDA dropped its yield forecast by 20 bushels per acre in the last monthly supply/demand report, a much bigger drop than anticipated. All eyes will be on the next one. Who else has a system set up to get a reliable nationwide estimate as USDA does with its FSA offices in every county with enough farmers? Interestingly, there were so many acres of corn planted this year that even with the reduced yield, it could still be a good crop. Of course, that’s provided the rest of the season is more normal.

Rains that come at critical times might pull this crop through, and the “sky is falling” reactors in a weather market might be proven wrong once again. They have been in the weather markets of recent years. Reading an article on changes in weather patterns, I was struck by the experts’ observations. We are seeing fewer wide-spread gentle rains and more thunderstorms and the rainfall amounts in those thunderstorms are increasing. Gully washers are far more common now. As a result, one area can have adequate rain, another struggle with flash floods, while yet in another area the crops suffer.

We have to remember, too, that this is sort of a flash drought – at least in the Corn Belt. It very quickly developed in an very intense way. In big areas, the winter wheat guys beat the drought, got the crop off and in fact, the dryness at the tail end of the growing season boosted the protein. Funny thing about wheat – in spring wheat country, farmers hope for the right amount of stress on the crop since the premiums for high protein make up for reduced yields, and disease problems from too much wetness creates other problems.

Indeed, we farm in northeastern N.D. which years ago used to be the heart of durum country. Durum wheat, used for pasta, loses quality quickly if it gets rained on once it ripens. Durum is bought on color – hard amber gets a premium – and bleached kernels get quite a docking. As a result of wetter years, virtually no durum is grown around us now. Instead, in my 140-mile weekly commute from the farm to Grand Forks where I work, I’m driving past many more corn fields than I’ve ever seen before.

Will the Corn Belt start moving north? And, will drought hardy milo start displacing corn in areas of the Corn Belt? There are a number of ethanol plants in Kansas and Nebraska and Texas that mix sorghum with corn, in what I understand is a fairly straightforward substitution. Wheat and other small grains, on the other hand, are not an easy substitution unless the plant is designed to handle the greater solids-to-starch ratio and higher viscosities. The various small grains can be amazing crops, though, for coming through with decent yields on a few tenths of an inch of rain coming at the right time.

A shift in cropping patterns happens over time, and agricultural industries readily adapt. What really worries people, though, is whether we’ll see a repeat of past big droughts. The 2012 drought is being called the biggest since the 80’s, 50’s and in some areas, the 30’s. My retired-farmer husband asked the question, is anyone planning for a worst case scenario? What if it this drought hangs on? The western plains states are familiar with drought and accustomed to planning for it, but this is more severe than most. I remember talking to S.D. cattle ranchers in a drought in the mid-70’s who said they planned for three-year droughts, and had hay stockpiled, but if it went much longer they’d be selling off. That amazed me, because growing up in southern Minnesota, I had never seen a severe drought.

We’ve learned so much about soil conservation since the dust bowl days. This year’s drought may test just how well those methods perform when severely tested. Crop varieties are far better, too. I’m starting to work on my next feature for the October issue which will ask the question of how the search for drought-resistant corn varieties is coming.

This past week, we saw a notice of a new research consortia looking at a drought-hardy weed, Setaria viridis, for even better drought resistance in bioenergy crops. That’s foxtail folks. Using it as a model plant system may mean it won’t take 30 years to develop a new crop. Instead, the news release says the researchers believe foxtail will be useful for genetic analysis. “In doing so, they hope to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving the closely related feedstock grasses.  The ability of bioenergy feedstocks to use water efficiently and to produce abundant yields at high density will be major drivers in the development of improved varieties.”