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home : opinions : opinions   October 27, 2016

8/14/2012 12:32:00 PM
Column: Drive-through view of Plains, Midwest drought

Craig Sterrett
News Editor

A trip last week through the Midwest and Plains states gave me a driver’s-side-window view of this year’s widespread drought.
Just like in Illinois, some pockets of Iowa and Nebraska appeared to be OK and others appeared to be in dire straits. Keep in mind, this is a drive-by report on apparent conditions of corn plants.
One thing many national news reports didn’t seem to take into account is the widespread practice of irrigation in the West and the Great Plains.
In much of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, the circular, irrigated portions of many fields appeared to be in decent shape, though the corn out west or even in neighboring Wisconsin rarely looks as good as Illinois’ corn.
Where irrigators were in use in much of Nebraska, parts of the square fields outside of the radius of the sprinklers had stunted or completely dead corn. Some farmers already had cut all of the corn outside of the reach of irrigation.
Some parts of central Nebraska appeared to have had decent amounts of rainfall to make fields look fairly healthy — at least to passers-by on Interstate 80, where the speed limit is 75 mph. It’s impossible to assess ear development at that speed, of course.
I imagine they’ll worry about their wells after they’re done using water on fields, rather than cutting back on watering crops out of concern for wells.
Several towns had lawn-watering bans in effect, and parks I visited had burning bans in effect — even prohibiting use of portable stoves due to dry conditions.
At the Nebraska visitors center in Omaha, a volunteer told me some fields near that city received just one one-hundredth of an inch of precipitation in July, and, he added, early August rains were too little, too late for fields that weren’t irrigated.
And, irrigation is less common in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa than areas to the west.
Nationwide reports also have discussed disastrous consequences of drought on pasture.
It’s not like cattle and horses aren’t grazing in the West and Midwest, but some pasture land looked burned up and brown, with the livestock finding clumps of green. In a few places, grazing areas looked fairly green to me.
Colorado newspaper stories last week focused on a major concern for winter: An extremely small hay crop surely would mean a harder winter for livestock producers and high meat prices for consumers. And I’m told some livestock producers, even in Illinois, already have started feeding hay to livestock instead of saving it all for winter.
The high gasoline prices the Midwest blamed in part on concerns for the predicted size of the corn crop and shortages for ethanol producers likely foreshadow more volatility in fuel prices. However, the gas prices weren’t rising as quickly out west as around here last week. I paid $3.40-$3.45 per gallon in Colorado for fuel last week, and on Sunday, $3.53-$3.56 in Nebraska and Iowa and $4 in Illinois.
This past weekend, the Omaha World Herald carried a story about U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visiting and announcing that Americans should not panic about the corn crop.
Though the size of the harvest continues to shrink in nationwide projections, Vilsack said the nationwide crop still should be bigger than what came in during 2006. So, the harvest shouldn’t be as small as some news stories trumpeted. In part, he noted farmers had planted a record-sized corn crop.
I’m sure his words were not reassuring to eastern Nebraska farmers who already have given up on their corn, or for Oklahoma ranchers who’ve started selling off herds after a second straight year of severe drought.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 223-3206 Ext. 135 or

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