Crop-withering drought intensifies in Plains states

Drought killed a corn crop in Yutan, Neb. About 83 percent of the state is in either extreme or exceptional stages of drought. Enlarge photo

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Drought killed a corn crop in Yutan, Neb. About 83 percent of the state is in either extreme or exceptional stages of drought.

ST. LOUIS – Drought conditions have worsened in several parched Plains states, further punishing withering corn and soybean crops and devastating the pastureland that ranchers depend on, according to the latest U.S. drought map.

Thursday’s release of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map came as the House took up disaster-relief legislation meant to help livestock producers who have seen feed prices soar because of what for many is the worst drought in decades.

That legislation, opposed by conservation and anti-tax groups who see it as another government bailout, was unlikely to receive Senate consideration before Congress adjourns for its August recess.

According to the latest Drought Monitor update, based on conditions as of Tuesday morning, the area of the lower 48 states experiencing extreme drought – the second-highest classification behind exceptional drought – rose nearly 2 percentage points from the previous week, to 22.3 percent. This was largely because of worsening conditions in parts of Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The area facing exceptional drought increased from 2.38 percent to about 3 percent.

While nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states still is experiencing some drought, recent storms pushed the percentage down to 62.91, from last week’s 63.86. Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, said the improvement isn’t much of a silver lining, because the rains did little more than “settle the dust.”

“There are rain events that did take place, but we didn’t see any widespread improvement to the core drought areas,” Fuchs said by phone from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where the drought report is released. Such precipitation “probably held off the intensification for a week or so. But the heat is going kick back in, and we’re going be in the same situation.

“The heat kicks in and the dryness returns. To say that we’ve seen good widespread rain throughout the drought regions of the county, we just haven’t. It’s beneficial in some aspects, but in agricultural aspects it’s too late.”

As of this week, nearly half of the nation’s corn crop was rated poor to very poor, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. About 37 percent of the U.S. soybeans were lumped into that category, while nearly three-quarters of U.S. cattle acreage is in drought-affected areas, the survey showed.

The drought has intensified in key farm states. About 31 percent of Iowa – the nation’s biggest corn and soybean producer – was in extreme or exceptional drought, up 3 percent from the previous week in a state completely covered by some form of drought.

About 83 percent of Nebraska was in the two worst classifications of drought, up from 64.07 percent.

Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, of North Carolina, said the price of corn has risen 50 percent since June because of the drought, heightening the specter that U.S. food prices will rise.

Ranchers say the extreme conditions have devastated hay supplies and pastureland. On Wednesday, the U.S. Agriculture Departments opened up 3.8 million acres of conservation land to livestock grazing. Under that conservation program, farmers have been paid to take land out of production to ward against erosion and create wildlife habitat.

While many farmers of corn and other crops have insurance providing some protection from the effects of the drought, cattle and sheep producers are vulnerable to sharp increases in feed prices resulting from the dry weather.

Farmers and ranchers got scant relief during the last week; the author of Thursday’s Drought Monitor update said rainfall was confined to small patches of the Dakotas. Much of the rest of that region, Fuchs colleague Mark Svoboda wrote, “can’t seem to shake off last year’s drought and have now been dragged back into it this year.”

“In addition to the large geographic footprint of this year’s drought,” Svoboda wrote, “the quick onset and rapid ramping up of intensity, coupled with extreme temperatures and subsequent impacts, has really left an imprint on those affected and has set this drought apart from anything we have seen at this scale over the past several decades.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Agriculture Department added 218 counties from 12 drought-stricken states to its list of natural disaster areas, bringing the overall total to 1,584 counties in 32 states. That’s more than half of all U.S. counties, and the vast majority of them received the designation because of drought.

The USDA uses the weekly Drought Monitor to help decide which counties to deem disaster areas, with the distinction making farmers and ranchers eligible for federal aid that includes low-interest emergency loans.