Some crops faring better than others in drought

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This year's drought has had varying effects on crops in different parts of the state, according to a crop specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Greg Roth, professor of agronomy and extension grain crops specialist, said that the drought is serious, but not yet the worst farmers have seen, and there is still hope for this year's crop.

"We're cautiously optimistic we still have decent potential for good grain yields," he said. "This early-season drought has more impact on silage yield potential, while grain crops have more potential to recover. But we still need rain."

A big area of concern is the forage supply, according to Roth. Yields from later hay cuttings are expected to be low as growth has slowed and pastures have browned. Corn crops are shorter with likely lower silage yields.

However, the development of corn plants is ahead of normal, and Roth said much of the corn crop is pollinating reasonably well. The corn began silking around July 1, about two weeks ahead of schedule. He said some corn will be ready for silage harvest in mid- to late August, leading to the chance to plant fall cover crops for forage to supplement supplies.

Roth said he's still hopeful for a good soybean crop, as the plants are more dependent on August rainfall than rainfall during early summer.

"We have good stands, and there is still significant positive yield potential," he said.

He added that no-till practices have somewhat helped crops cope with the drought and that many farmers have crop insurance for risk management.

Diseases generally have been kept at bay by the dry weather. Roth said the dry weather in June contributed to less disease on the wheat crop, saying the recently harvested wheat looked good in yield and quality.

"Nevertheless, dry weather will have significant impacts," he said. "We had a significant drought last year, and many farmers hoped to rebuild inventory this year."

Roth said that in the worst areas, some farmers are salvaging corn for silage and replanting their fields to crops such as sorghum-sudan grass.

The problem comes when that salvaged corn is high in moisture and nitrates. Roth warned that high nitrate levels are a source of silo gas, which is toxic to humans and livestock. The gas emerges during initial fermentation and can be identified by bleach-like odors and/or yellowish brown fumes at the base of the silo. Roth said to make sure to wear protective gear around silos with a potential problem and to run a blower to dispel the gas.

Another challenge facing farmers this year is higher grain prices, which will hit livestock producers hard.

"We often rely on the Midwest to help with our annual shortfall in grain production," Roth said.

Referring to the severe drought in that region of the country, he continued, "Now, we'll need to find creative ways on our own to help the shortfall."

Strategies to combat the lower yields include building or stretching the forage inventory. Roth said this is possible by double cropping after damaged crops have been salvaged. Aggressive cover cropping for forage following the harvest of full-season crops is also a possibility.

Roth said corn producers should check on the progress of pollination for their crops and estimate the potential grain yields so they can plan for their needs in the fall. Farmers also need to make marketing decisions on how much grain they might be able to sell this fall.

"Many Pennsylvania farmers have been through drought before and have experience coping, using strategies like cover cropping for forage," Roth said. "There is also the potential to find alternative feedstuffs."

Farmers who face possible losses should consult their crop insurance agents for an assessment. In deciding what forage-crop alternatives to plant, producers should examine what herbicides were used in the field, as well as the potential costs and returns.

Roth said some farmers in drought-prone areas are starting to adopt alternative crops that are more drought tolerant, such as winter barley, grain sorghum or sunflowers. The crop diversity helps farms better withstand tough weather conditions.

Roth said crop and livestock producers should plan their next steps now.

"We may have a feed shortage in the fall," he said. "Now is the time to think about it."

Roth is part of a team of faculty specialists and extension educators who provide recommendations for crops through the Field Crop News.

More information on silo gas from the Penn State Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering can be found online at http://www.agsafety.psu.edu/factsheets/E16.pdf or at local Penn State Extension offices.

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Last Updated July 26, 2012