Special Report: University crops destroyed by scarce rain

High temperatures and low rainfall totals over the summer months rendered much of the Murray State row crops almost devastated. || Austin Ramsey/The News


High temperatures and low rainfall totals over the summer months rendered much of the Murray State row crops almost devastated. || Photos by Austin Ramsey/The News

David Ferguson measures rain.

Not everywhere, as the agronomy professor’s detailed log books have been replaced with more precise weather stations at most University farms, but still at the most recently added land to the Murray State collection, Ferguson or a graduate student will run outside and check a classic weather gauge, eyeing the cylindrical tube with markings for the most detailed account of when the skies open up.

These days, his log books, which he keeps in a neat pile in the van he uses to drive around the county to the different Hutson School of Agriculture farms, have gone untouched for days —weeks even—on end. A dust has settled on the books and the gauges for which they account. Ferguson has taken little notice to the books, though – or the gauges.

He’s just wishing for a little rain.

Indeed, Murray and its surrounding farms in Calloway County have not been immune to the relentless drought plaguing most of the middle United States over the past few months. Dry air and high heat have made conditions miserable for most of the farm-predominate states this summer. The impenetrable weather stretches far out into the Pacific Ocean, covering a large swath of the globe before halting suddenly along the eastern seaboard where summer storms are the story for much of New England.

Hot and dry weather patterns were increasing in visibility when the rain slowed in early May. Drought monitors nationwide indicated that much of the U.S. has suffered from low rain totals since the start of the year.

David Ferguson, agronomy professor, demonstrates a drought’s effects on soybeans.

Justin Holland, National Weather Service weather observer for the region, said August rain totals are actually up lately, as heavy rains fell for several days as students returned in the middle of the month.

Unfortunately, he said, the overall low numbers for the year, coupled with the dry weather keep Calloway County in a category 4, or exceptional, drought. Holland said the U.S. Drought Monitor does not even categorize conditions past that in which the region finds itself.

“Normally at this time from January through August we have roughly 32 inches of rain,” he said. “So, we are about 13 inches below average.”

Latest rainfall totals round Murray’s ongoing yearly count at just less than 20 inches of rain. Last year, at this time, rainfall totaled at more than double that number, giving the city an almost 2-foot rain deficit on a two-year average.

Numbers like those, Holland said, put the region in a sensitive position, as much of the rain falling lately can no longer penetrate the hardened soil, leaving much of Murray’s vegetation at risk of dying before the winter’s freeze.

“That is a very significant number,” Holland said. “It will take us months if not one or two years to catch back up to normal. It has already destroyed pretty much all of the crops. In fact, if we get any more rainfall from here on out, it won’t help the crops.”

For much of June and July, the dry weather was a major concern for farmers and government agencies in Calloway County. Little rain left field brush and wheat fields sitting targets in the summer heat, and Calloway County Fire-Rescue squads responded to more fires than ever before. One week, in fact, firefighters responded to a blaze almost every day, leading Calloway County Judge-Executive Larry Elkins to issue a countywide burn ban only days before the Fourth of July. That rendered most private firework shows silent.

The drought did not go without notice, however. Crop insurance agencies were in high demand this year, giving some afflicted farmers in the region a bit of last-minute hope as shriveling corn crops and pastures looked more and more dire. Federal work to approve farm aid moved quicker in Washington, and some farmers were able to use domestic aid toward making ends meet or last-ditch efforts to save their hurt fields.

And it is for that reason that Professor Ferguson has let wishful eyes fall from the sky. To him, and to the acres of row crops dotted around the county at University farms, this year’s summer heat was devastating.

Agriculture students are returning or beginning their higher education studies to a different beat this year, as studies usually geared toward the production and maintained health of row crops have transitioned to a more sobering story of depleted corn fields and struggling soybeans.

Cornfields, which cover much of the Pullen and West farms at Murray State, are at what Ferguson called “extreme” losses. The drought, the worst one to afflict the region in more than 50 years, failed to subside at crucial growth stages since planting.

Ferguson said plentiful rain keeps the corn plants in a good position to reap heavy benefits come fall harvesting. In essence, the stresses of low moisture are most pronounced during a four-week time window after the corn stalks have begun silking. At that point, the more moisture the established root system can collect the heavier the yield.

Most farmers, he said, seeded their corn early this year, setting that crucial time window somewhere in the month of July or early August. Rain totals in this area accumulated to little or nothing then, varying to some degree dependent on the geographical positioning of the farm. Yield reduction percentages would place about a 50 percent loss for Murray State farms, based on that data. Recently, though, the North Dakota State University School of Agriculture performed a study averaging an almost 2 percent yield reduction on corn every day it went without water.

That could leave some area farmers with a yield of exactly zero.

“They’re just trying to hold on – to survive,” Ferguson said, looking out on row after row of withering state variety trial corn stalks at the Pullen Farm complex. “No one predicted a drought like this. No one could have predicted a drought like this.”

Ferguson points to a sparce ear of corn caused by low moisture at key growth stages.

Murray State’s total could range up to a 75 percent loss, said Jason Robertson, farm manager at the University’s farm center. Soybeans, which are far less sensitive to the heat and dry weather, are the determining factor as to how severe the Murray State loss will be. Flowering, which will produce more usable beans, can occur at several intervals during the growing season, giving some farmers like Ferguson a bit of hope for the future.

For now though, Ferguson can only look at the slowly dying corn, almost destroyed now from wilted kernels and drought-promoted fungi and hope for better luck next year.

At this point, Tony Brannon, dean of the agriculture school, said that is really all Murray State farm employees can do, because much of this year’s time and, even money has already been wasted by the dying crops.

“The main difference between our farm and a regular producer farm is that our inputs are typically higher and we do not have access to crop insurance,” he said. “Many of our research plots will not yield meaningful results for this growing season. Since we are dependent on crop and livestock revenues to balance the budget, the drought will have a dramatic effect but we will make it work.”

Other areas on campus may also be harmed by the drought as conditions worsen in the coming days.

Don Robertson, vice president of Student Affairs, said he expects a significant jump in food prices past the 6 percent Dining Services had already budgeted for before the drought. With that, effects could be long lasting. For now, corn and bean prices have begun a slow rise that national experts predict will only speed up, while beef prices have shot down quickly, resulting from cattle ranchers rushing to sell their herds quickly without enough money for corn feed. In the future, though, those prices too, are expected to rise.

Some farmers have already begun to harvest corn this year, and Bill Payne, an agribusiness economics professor at the University, said early numbers do not look good.

“Corn yields are running everywhere from zero, which basically means they’re plowing up their corn and not even harvesting it, to some fairly respectable yields in those areas that may have lucked out and gotten a little bit of rain or those areas that were irrigated,” Payne said. “An increasing number of farmers in our area are putting in irrigation systems.”

Local vegetation may see some wet relief over the weekend, as showers and thunderstorms are predicted, but Ferguson and Holland agreed that the rain will likely be too little too late.

Story by Austin Ramsey, Editor-in-Chief.