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Some U.S. corn plants are so dry they’re not producing ears of grain

Aug. 23, 2022 Updated Tue., Aug. 23, 2022 at 8:13 p.m.

Corn crops that died due to extreme heat and drought during a heatwave in Austin, Texas, on July 11, 2022.  (Bloomberg )
Corn crops that died due to extreme heat and drought during a heatwave in Austin, Texas, on July 11, 2022. (Bloomberg )
By Kim Chapman, Tarso Veloso Ribeiro and Michael Hirtzer Bloomberg

It’s been so dry in parts of Nebraska and South Dakota that corn plants are doing something truly strange – they’re not producing ears of grain.

The stalks, which should be about 8 feet tall by this time of year, are withered, browning and short – some are only standing at about 5 feet.

Crop scouts set out this week to analyze yields, and in some isolated patches, they actually had trouble finding enough corn ears to measure.

While it’s not a widespread problem, the shocking development is an indicator of just how harsh the hot, dry weather has been.

Most of the plants, of course, do have ears – but they’re often in bad shape and are abnormally small.

The tops of the ears sometimes aren’t even filled with yellow kernels, and instead, the bare cob is exposed.

It’s a phenomenon farmers call “tip back,” and it’s a sign of drought damage.

“Corn is a disaster in some cases,” said Nathan Serbus, a Minnesota farmer and a crop scout on the western leg of the four-day Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour.

While dry conditions hamper the Midwest, Washington and Idaho farmers have experienced excellent conditions for growing wheat after a wet spring.

As of Monday, some 84% 0f Washington spring wheat production was listed as good with virtually no percentage of acreage listed as poor or very poor, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Crop and Condition report.

In Idaho, about 58% of the spring wheat crop was listed as good with 27% listed as fair. Only 5% of the crop was listed as poor, according to the report.

But as for the Midwest corn survey, Serbus estimated that 95% percent of the fields he saw on Monday were “extremely bad.”

“It’s a lot of junk,” he said.

That’s bad news for a world that’s already suffering from surging global food inflation and extremely tight grain supplies.

A bumper U.S. harvest is desperately needed to help replenish food stockpiles diminished by war, heat and drought.

But early indications from the closely watched crop tour are signaling that’s not likely to happen, at least as far is corn is concerned.

Scouts traveled through parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, Ohio and Indiana on the first day of the tour on Monday, carefully measuring fields to determine the outlook for this season’s harvest.

They found that corn yields in South Dakota averaged 118.45 bushels an acre, down more than 25% from the three-year average.

In Ohio, on the eastern side of the farm belt, corn yields were below last year and the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate.

Crop scouts in both states also saw harvest potential below last year for soybeans.

On the western leg of the tour, scouts saw everything from hail damage to grasshopper-filled fields, with evidence of the insects having chewed the outside edges of dried-out plants.

Some farmers have already given up on their acres and cut them down to turn the dry stalks into cattle feed.

“The lack of moisture is incredibly evident,” said Jarod Creed, owner of J.C. Marketing Services and a scout on the western leg, adding that yield prospects were “disappointing.”

Chip Flory, leader of the western leg of the tour, said one field he saw in southeastern South Dakota only had nine viable ears of corn in a row of plants that stretched 60-feet long.

That compares with the three-year average for that area of 87, according to Pro Farmer tour data.

When it’s too dry, a corn plant’s leaves curl up to protect it, closing it off to pollination, and therefore not enabling it to produce ears.

Nationally, only about 55% of the crop is considered to be in good or excellent shape, down from 60% this time last year, U.S. government data show.

While dryness typified the issues in the Western crop belt, on the eastern leg of the tour on Monday scouts saw acres marked by abundant rain.

Fields were muddy and puddled. The excess moisture can also lead to problems with development.

Drier soils were seen toward southwest Ohio, with some evidence of “tip back.”

There were “more ups and downs than what I expected – like a hit or miss,” said Brian Grete, leader of the eastern leg and editor for the Pro Farmer Newsletter. “Corn conditions are decent, with variable yields.”

Corn futures in Chicago rose Tuesday as much as 2.9% to a six-week high, while soybeans gained as much as 1.4%.

Scouts said they were surprised at how bad some corn fields were in South Dakota because there weren’t some of the expected signs of extreme dryness in the fields, like big cracks in the ground.

The region has had some rain recently but “the damage was done,” Flory told farmers Monday night at a tour meeting in Nebraska.

Along with the dryness, high temperatures almost certainly took a big toll during a key development phase for the crops last month, Flory said.

The impact of heatwaves this season in key areas like Iowa, the biggest U.S. corn grower, is a concern.

The crop tour will be closely examining those fields on Wednesday and Thursday. The state had an unusually long period of high temperatures in July.

The crop tour on Tuesday was set to examine corn and soybeans in Nebraska and Indiana.

While fields in parts of northeast Nebraska on Monday looked below average, Flory told farmers it was far too early to jump to conclusions.

The problems seen so far for corn crops pierce the idea that U.S. plants had somehow become invincible, said Flory from the western leg.

In recent years, despite unfavorable weather, farmers have managed to pull through with good yields.

That led some to think that improvements in plant genetics and crop management could get fields through any extreme condition.

“We’ve discovered again that corn is not bulletproof,” Flory said. “Weather still matters when it comes to making a yield.”

Still, Creed of J.C. Marketing Services said there was some reason for hope because scouts were in some of the “worst” hit areas on Monday.

Fields could start improving as the tour continues.

Soybean crops also looked to be in better shape than corn, said Serbus, a fourth-generation farmer on the western tour leg.

“Soybeans are still somewhat salvageable with rain.”

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