Dry spell hits Valley farmers at critical time of growing season
By Kristen Bishop
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This year's highly anticipated corn crop is off to a slow start in the Tennessee Valley as severe drought conditions have stalled growth, said an area extension agronomist.
This is the second drought in two years to hit during a critical point in the growing season, said Charlie Burmester of the Tennessee Valley Regional Extension Center.
Many area farmers had hoped to make up for last year's losses by switching cotton acreage to corn, taking advantage of high prices due to a booming biofuels industry.
Hoping to break even
But with an unforeseen drought sapping the crops they planted this spring, many would be happy to break even, said Burmester.
"The problem is that, the way the crop situation is now, we might settle for an average yield. We're hoping for dry land corn to make at least 100 bushels," he said.
"We had fields during last year's drought that only made 20 or 30 bushels. You can't make any money off that no matter how high the price of corn is."
Only 10 inches of rain have fallen over North Alabama so far this year. That's about 15 inches short of the expected rainfall.
The state Department of Economic and Community Affairs declared severe drought conditions Friday for 37 counties, including Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan.
"We were lucky enough to get some rain in early May, but the growth has slowed a lot due to the dry weather," he said. "The corn leaves are starting to turn in the afternoon. They curl up due to lack of moisture. That's bad for this time of season."
Rain needed soon
He said most of the corn crops have reached a stage where adequate rainfall is necessary.
"It's critical that we get rain in the next week," said Burmester.
The drought is the second hurdle the corn crop has had this year. Below-freezing temperatures in early April damaged acres of newly planted corn, causing many farmers to spend thousands of dollars for seed to replant.
Burmester estimated that 75 percent of the region's corn acreage was replanted in April, about a month after the optimal planting time for this area.
Farmers try to plant corn earlier in the spring so that the crop will have reached its tassel stage by July when rainfall generally increases, he said.
"This will push that stage to late July rather than late June, and that's normally a really dry period for us," said Burmester. "It's hard to tell exactly what will happen. We just have to wait and see."
A bill that would provide relief to farmers hurt by the drought and other disasters since 2005 is making its way through Congress. The bill has passed the House and now goes to the Senate for a vote.
If passed, the bill would provide financial assistance for growers who suffered weather-related crop losses in 2005, 2006 or 2007. The 2007 assistance would only apply to crops planted before Feb. 28 or crops that farmers intended to plant before that date but were unable to because of weather-related conditions. Farmers would be allowed to apply for assistance for only one of the three years.
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