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Drought can be survived if relief comes soon

Despite the continuing heat and drought last week, local agriculture officials were optimistic area farmers can still salvage some crops from this growing season.

Representatives of the Pierce County Land Conservation Department and the county's Farm Service Agency (FSA) office admitted the lack of soil moisture has growers here concerned. But they offered some positive news amidst the dryness.

"Spotty" is how Soil Conservationist Jon Krauss described rainfall distribution in the county this year, saying certain places have received a measure of beneficial rain, while a couple of miles down the road, there's been nothing. Krauss especially mentioned the Towns of Gilman and Spring Lake as being shorted during several rain opportunities, yet the Diamond Bluff vicinity has been blessed in that regard, for example.

"It's getting to the point where it's creating a lot of hard feelings among farmers," he said Thursday.

The conservationist reported 7.6 inches of rain has fallen at his farm northeast of Ellsworth since early May. Between May 6 and 31 there, an inch-and-a-half fell. He didn't have a comparison of this year's rain amount to date for the entire county with Pierce's annual average, but suggested it could be meaningless anyway, considering the hit-and-miss nature of recent showers.

Statewide, a similar rainfall situation existed late last month, according to information Krauss shared from the Wisconsin Field Office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. As of July 23, soil moisture conditions were 39 percent very short, 19 percent short, 38 percent adequate and four percent surplus on the state average. However, the northwestern and north central parts of the state had 87 percent and 96 percent for the very short category, while the far southwestern and south central parts had 0 and one percent in that category.

The west central region, including Pierce, was between those extremes with 36 percent very short, a bit below the overall state average.

"Barron County has already written off their corn crop," Krauss said.

Corn growth has varied here, depending on different factors, he said. He's seen some curl up, then be revived after a few showers, only to curl again in the heat. He understood roots on some corn plants go down as much as four-and-a-half feet, enabling it to tap into lower level moisture.

"The corn that's on good soil is hanging in pretty good," he said, contrasting that corn with other on more gravelly ground and explaining improved genetics may be responsible.

Corn growing on good soil, like several fields he's seen along Ellsworth's north side, tends to be normal height, the conservationist said, noting he's also witnessed some lately as short as four feet high. Still, height isn't the main factor in determining corn quality. How it's pollinated can make a big difference and examining the ears for any blanks is also telling.

"If the corn has any weeds in it, it won't do as well," he said about the importance of weed control.

Normally, an average of around 135-140 bushels of corn per acre can be expected, he said. Up to 200 bushels per acre have been realized in a few recent seasons.

A major reason Krauss is hopeful this growing season won't be a repeat of the most recent serious drought year, 1988, is the moisture received early on, he said, remembering the spring of '88 was dry. Many farmers had their first crops in by the end of May or early June this year. More chopping than ever is done now, too, he added.

The third crops will likely be shorter this season, he said, yet there's still a chance for yields if the heat subsides and rains become more widespread. It's early enough for that to happen. Of course, timing and management will figure into any success; it's too early for him to tell how prices of crops bought and sold will be affected.

During the '88 drought, some Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage was released. Pierce FSA Director Linda Paul said Thursday if that were to occur this year, a "D-3" condition would have to exist, according to the official U.S. drought monitor.

"We're borderline 'D-0' to 'D-1' right now," Paul said, so the dryness isn't as extreme.

She reminded farmers there is a managed haying or grazing program available. They can take advantage of this program once every three years. Her office has already had a "number of requests" for it.

This year's heat is taking a toll on farm animals, Krauss said. Milk production has declined some, though dairy herds can catch up overnight. In the daytime, they need plenty of water, shade and ventilated facilities.