Iowa Public Television


Nebraska Farmers Weather Midwest Drought

posted on July 20, 2012

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying “everybody complains about the weather, but no one really does anything about it.”  But that’s not really the case -- especially in the Western Corn Belt.

In Nebraska, for example, farmers take a more proactive approach by irrigating their crops with life-giving moisture from local waterways and the massive Ogallala Aquifer. 

Last week, however, state officials ordered more than 1,000 irrigators to stop pumping from rivers and streams until conditions improve.

But that hasn’t stopped all the irrigators.   Since more than 90 percent of Nebraska's irrigation systems draw from wells -- and not surface waters -- the ban’s impact on yields may not be severe. 

Market to Market examined conditions in the Corn Husker State this week, and as Andrew Batt discovered where growers ARE irrigating, crops are in pretty good shape. 

Peer through many Nebraska farm fields this summer and the results may surprise you.  It appears this plains region of the Midwest may have been spared from drought conditions…timely rains have boosted the endless acres of corn and soybeans.  Timely…because every 92 to 96 hours, many of the state’s pivot systems make a full pass on each field of irrigated crops.  Few farmers nationwide have the moisture control provided by hundred-foot long professional sprinkler systems…and few years are as risky as 2012.

Daryl Hunnicut, Giltner, Nebraska:  “I don’t know that we’ve been dryer.  We’ve had years…2002, 1995, 1988 have been dry years but probably not to the extent that this one has been with the heat combined with the dry, and the wind we've had along with it.”

The blast furnace formerly known as the U.S. Corn Belt has left growers from Kansas to Ohio helpless to defend their crops.  But some Nebraska farmers can dip into a precious oasis…the region’s vast Ogallala Aquifer.  Daryl Hunnicut uses mostly pivot irrigation but a few fields are still equipped with older technology - gravity irrigation…where pumps literally flood corn rows as the water runs from one side of the field - down to the other.

Daryl Hunnicut, Giltner, Nebraska: “This is just pollinating or finishing up pollinating. We can see its pretty well pollinated every kernel. There are a few blanks in there which could be related to the heat.”

Pivot systems are the mainstay in central Nebraska.  And the Hunnicut family fields are a perfect example of how quickly the Cornhusker State can become fields of feast…or famine.

Daryl Hunnicut, Giltner, Nebraska: “It would be classified as a nubbin' with a few kernels, but with the lack of rainfall that will not develop."

This is a pivot corner….a small but thirsty section untouched by the aquifer’s reach and a clear contrast of what the entire state of Nebraska would look like without heavy use of pump irrigation.

Daryl Hunnicut, Giltner, Nebraska: "Within a few feet, we would go from zero yield to a significant yield, but at least 180 to 200 bushel corn within a few feet."

Nowhere are those concerns more researched than a short drive away to Lincoln and the National Drought Mitigation Center where climatologists pours over 90 data sets to develop the weekly “Drought Monitor.”

Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center:  “We're seeing impacts that maybe we saw with a multi-season, multi-year drought. So, maybe it doesn't take a drought the worst in severity to cause impact. I think we're seeing droughts now that are causing impacts comparable to what we saw that took years to develop, or certainly months or seasons."

Tens of thousands of real-time data sensors, from stream levels to moisture levels to county-by-county rainfall feeds into the drought monitor. 

Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center:"I think you have to be, right now, fortunate to be under some sort of hit or miss thunder storm. It hits your farm, but it isn't going to be this widespread everyone sharing in the rain anytime soon. And our concerns will shift from the corn to what happens with the soybean crop as it extends into August."

Since its inception at the University of Nebraska in 1999, the center has become the premier national resource for drought measurement.  And for growers, the data are troubling.

Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center:"Well, this is the state of Massachusetts, Delaware and Rhode Island all in one in some of these common divisions, literally, for spacial coverage."

A dry winter may have set the stage for the 2012 drought but the past 60 days have brought the brunt of intensity.  From mid-May to mid-July, the Corn Belt has slowly but surely dried of nearly all its moisture.

Mark Svoboda, National Drought Mitigation Center: "So maybe this isn't as long-lived of a drought as we've seen, but drought's all about timing, timing, timing instead of say real estate and location, location, location."

And the economic costs are just beginning….

Ernie Goss, Creighton University:  “And everyone in the nation is wondering why in the heck is this part of the country doing so well. Well, it was doing so well, a lot to do with agriculture."

Each month, Creighton Economist Ernie Goss surveys bankers across the Midwest and publishes the Rural Mainstreet Index.  His latest report revealed steep declines in key sectors.

Ernie Goss, Creighton University: “Even those with crop insurance, there's no crop insurance for agricultural equipment sales. And our agricultural equipment sales index dropped to recessionary levels. We haven't recorded an index for agricultural equipment sales this low since early 2009. That was before, of course, the recession ended for the U.S. economy."

Back in the fields, the Hunnicuts, like many Nebraskans, are running their pivot systems nonstop this summer in an effort to stave off dry conditions.  Daryl’s son Zach monitors each field’s moisture data in real-time on his iPad.

Zach Hunnicut, Giltner, Nebraska: “Here it's graphing the soil moisture content. These little spikes you see, that's where we've either had a rain event which obviously hasn't been the case this year, or an irrigation."

In normal years, these tools would show growers when to turn off irrigation…but there’s no need for that in a drought.

Near Trumbull, Nebraska, Doug Saathoff has farmed with pivot irrigation since the mid 1990’s and is running his diesel-powered pivots nearly 24 hours a day.

Doug Saathoff, Trumbull, Nebraska: "We're used to hot, dry summers, but 100 degrees for ten days or whatever and have ten more days of high 90s. It's tough on the crops and we got to keep the irrigation going. It's a struggle, but we're getting there."

He also uses a newer moisture distribution technology on a small section of his farm: drip irrigation.  Small lines are laid 16 inches below the topsoil prior to planting.  This professional “soaker hose” slowly adds water to the entire field and mitigates most evaporation concerns. While the process uses less water, the technology and installation doesn’t come cheap.  Other Nebraska irrigators have less control than Saathoff or Hunnicut.  Many growers in south-central Nebraska are strictly allocated a set amount of water each growing season.  And some were told this week to turn off the spigots because nearby streams were running dry. It’s a lesson not lost on the farmers of the Ogallala aquifer.

Doug Saathoff, Trumbull, Nebraska: "I know someday, it will be our region. We're not allocated right now on how much water we can pump, but I know that day is coming. And, we need to be prepared for it and we need to start now if that happens."

In the meantime, growers like Saathoff and Hunnicutt hope $8-or higher-corn will offset constant pivot irrigation input costs.  2012 ironically could be a blessing of sorts for growers toiling away in the Nebraska plains…IF the economics of national drought and localized irrigation pencil out.

Ernie Goss, Creighton University: “Those farmers, those agricultural producers that have irrigated crops in those areas that have had moisture are doing real well. In other words, if you have a good crop, well of course, prices are at very good levels. So, those farmers are doing real well.”

For Market to Market, I’m Andrew Batt.


Tags: corn drought irrigation Nebraska


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