Rains Welcomed but May Be Too Late to Save Crops

by Susan Henning, District Manager, Kay County Conservation District, July 20, 2011

image of corn fields in drought
Cornfields in Kay County, especially those on the west side of the county are not only burned up from the extreme temperatures and drought conditions but have also lodged or fallen down.

The northern one-fourth of Kay County received some much-needed rainfall last week, but the majority of the county still remains in the grip of severe drought as does three-fourths of the state.  The Oklahoma Mesonet reported that north-central Oklahoma has experienced temperatures over 100 degrees, or about nine degrees warmer than normal, since mid-June while receiving only 46 percent of the normal precipitation — a deficit of over eight inches. Topsoil and subsoil moisture conditions are estimated 70-78 percent very short. Spring row crop conditions have deteriorated rapidly. Livestock producers are noting hay and grazing forages are becoming limited and water sources for livestock are dangerously low. Susan Henning, district manager for the Kay County Conservation District contacted a few local livestock producers and farmers last week to get their take on the drought situation.

Joe Kreger, manager of Bois d’Arc Beefmaster Cattle, southwest of Tonkawa, reports that land west of Interstate 35 has missed out on recent rains. He is grazing his hay meadows instead of baling them for hay due to the short supply of pasture grass. He estimates he has 30-40 percent of the hay he needs to make it through this winter. Forage and hay supplies are going to be limited this fall. He believes that rotational grazing and improved pasture management implemented in the last decade is paying off during this dry spell, although he is culling the lowest priority cattle and may wean some calves earlier than usual. Joe says he is blessed with wells and rural water to ensure enough water for his cattle for now, but has had to fence off drying up ponds to prevent cattle from getting mired in the mud.  Right now the demand for cattle for exports and domestic use is still high; he feels they just need to “hold on” through this tough time to be able to grow their herds again in the next couple of years.

Neal Otto, farmer in the Kildare area, says there will be little to none of his corn harvested. The corn is brown all the way up the stalk. The high temperatures also killed the pollen in the tassels and only spotty kernels if any appear on ears. Neal feels there could be some hope for late-planted soybeans, but only if temperatures cool off and some more rainfalls. The early planted soybeans have aborted blossoms in the high temperatures that are needed to set pods. He has baled some prairie hay, but jokingly says “when people see you on a hay swather they chase you down to ask about buying hay.”  

Dale Wooderson, Blackwell farmer and seed dealer for DeKalb corn and Asgrow soybeans, echoes Neal Otto’s prediction that no corn will be harvested for grain in Kay County this year. Not only has corn in the western side of the county burned up but most of it has lodged or fallen down on the ground. Dale says 2011 brings back memories of years 1954-55 which was almost a carbon copy. He remembers coming back from the army after six weeks training and finding his soybeans looking like cured tobacco, it was so hot and dry. The flurry of soybean seed business he usually sees around July 1 was practically non-existent this year, as producers hesitated to put in after-wheat beans with the looming dry soil conditions. Dale says that he views this year as a “salvage operation,” collecting enough from crop insurance to barely pay the fertilizer costs.  

Warren Frantz, livestock producer and custom hay operator from the Ponca City area, reports that hay yield is down about two-thirds, the native grasses yielding better than Bermuda or plains bluestem. He has had requests for hay as far away as Ardmore, but supplies are limited. He suggests that producers check with the Noble Foundation and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture for sources of hay.

Gary Potter, Blackwell Livestock Auction, reports an increased volume of cattle sold last Monday. Many producers are calling to inquire about strategies for reducing herd numbers due to scarce pasture grasses and ponds that are drying up. The Oklahoma City Stockyards reports increased cattle numbers with slightly declining prices. Temperatures above 100 degrees are hurting the demand for light cattle. National Public Radio was on location in western Oklahoma at the Elk City Livestock Auction during the week. Cattle in the auction were the highest number ever recorded at over 4,300 head. The sale lasted nearly 12 hours. The Oklahoma Mesonet reports that Elk City has a 12 inch rain deficit.

Livestock producers are also worried about using failed corn crops for hay or silage due to high nitrate levels. Nitrates chemically change to nitrites in the ruminant animals’ digestive tract, leading to death through asphyxiation because of lowered transportation of oxygen by hemoglobin in the blood. Johnsongrass and sorghum also have a high potential for accumulating nitrate. OSU Extension fact sheets PSS-2903 Nitrate Toxicity in Livestock, PSS-2904 Prussic Acid Poisoning in Livestock, and PSS-2589 Collecting Forage Samples for Analysis are valuable resources for producers. Whenever hay or silage from corn contains ears, there is also a risk of aflatoxin contamination. Testing forage for nitrates, prussic acid, and aflatoxin contamination before cutting for hay or silage is highly recommended.

Dan Collins with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center says that it is highly unlikely that current drought conditions will be broken before the end of summer across Oklahoma and Texas, and odds are not much better to see the drought totally end by the end of the calendar year. This shortage of soil profile moisture will affect the planting of winter wheat this fall.