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Drought in Midwest to have widespread impact
Hot and dry is the norm for those who reside in the Yuma area, but dry skies and record-setting summer temperatures are devastating the nation's corn belt.
According to droughtmonitor.com, 85 percent of the country's corn crop, 83 percent of the soybean crop, 65 percent of the hay crop and 71 percent of the cattle production area are experiencing drought. Even more sobering, nearly half the U.S. corn and soybean crops are in the red zone, meaning extreme and exceptional drought. In the latest development, a stretch of the Mississippi River was closed last week to barges because of the low water levels.
“There is hardly a person involved in agriculture this year who has not been adversely affected by the drought of 2012,” said Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau president, as he declared National Day of Prayer for Drought Victims last week. “And while many farm and ranch families are feeling the effects immediately due to withered crops, parched pastures, higher feed costs or even wildfires, the lingering effects of this drought will be felt all across our nation for many months to come.”
The impact is already being seen in sharply higher prices for corn and soybeans, two of the most important food crops worldwide for humans and animals, noted Kurt Nolte, executive director of the Yuma County Cooperative Extension.
In turn, this is likely to drive up retail prices, increases that consumers could start seeing in supermarkets by fall.
It won't just be on cornflakes.
“Corn isn't just a vegetable and cereal,” Nolte said. “It's used in a number of products from food to commercial products.”
Corn and soybeans also are valuable feed crops for cattle, pork and poultry. In the short term, drought conditions may lead to ranchers culling their herds in response to higher feed costs that would increase the meat supply. That trend would reverse in time as supplies shrink.
And while Iowa may seem like a long way from Arizona, Nolte expressed concern the devastation of the Midwest's feed corn crop will be felt by Yuma County's local feed lot, which receives a large quantity of feed corn weekly by rail.
Nolte also expressed concern about the potential impact on milk and egg production.
It's not like Yuma County could make up for the massive losses of corn and soybeans. Soybeans don't do well in Yuma's dry heat, and only small amounts of feed corn are grown here because of the presence of aflatoxin, he said. Besides, land in Yuma is more valuable for the production of vegetables and durum wheat, also important food crops.
There could be increased production of alfalfa and Sudan grass here, he said, but there is limited acreage for the forage crops.
Nolte sees the impact of the crop losses extending beyond the borders of the U.S., an exporter of corn and soybeans to other countries. There are few reserves of the crops, and other countries are experiencing reduced crops as well through drought in Russia and flooding in Brazil, Nolte said.
“A Midwest drought could lead to global food shortages,” he said, remembering the global food riots of 2008. “The world is on the edge of having adequate food to feed people globally. It cannot buffer these catastrophic events.”
Consumers may also see the impact of the drought at the pumps. Nolte said there's a push to reduce or waive the requirement that gasoline contain 15 percent ethanol, much of which is made from corn — corn that is needed for food.
One good thing that may come out of the drought is research it is spurring into new crop varieties.
Some research was done on soybeans in the 1980s, when a series of severe droughts struck parts of the United States, Nolte said. The research focused on trying to find a variety of soybeans that wouldn't shatter in the desert Southwest's hot dry weather, making them unharvestable.
With the latest drought, there is a renewed interest in finding a shatter-proof soybean that could be grown in this environment, he said.
In addition, this year's drought is giving seed companies and farmers a chance to put new drought-tolerant varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops to the test. While there's no such thing as a crop that can go without water, research on improved strains is focused on minimizing yield losses.