While prospects for a decent 2012 corn crop fade with every day of ongoing drought conditions, most of Michigan's other row crops are faring far better. The recently concluded wheat harvest went off without a hitch and with outstanding yields. Prospects for the state's other key big-acreage crops—soybeans, dry beans and sugar beets—are still good given adequate August rainfall.
"This is two years in a row now that the wheat crop has been a real positive for Michigan agriculture," says Bob Boehm, Michigan Farm Bureau's (MFB) commodity and marketing manager. "With a mild winter and enough moisture earlier in the season, we had a great wheat crop that was mature before the drought set in. We had nice, dry conditions during harvest and good quality. And it came off quickly, without any weather delays."
USDA estimates Michigan's statewide average wheat yield this year at 72 bushels per acre—shy of last year's 75 bushels but well above the 69-bushel average since 2005.
"From a risk management standpoint, our farmers are wise to keep wheat in their rotations," Boehm said. It helps cushion the blow of years like this, when record corn plantings are unlikely to pay off for farmers.
"Farmers did plant the largest corn crop in terms of acreage since the 1930s this year, and at today's yield potentials we were expecting 166 bushels per acre as late as mid-June," Boehm says. "That would've produced a crop approaching 15 billion bushels—the largest in U.S. history."
Recent rains have brought some welcome relief to thirsty corn fields, but it has been scattered and, in some areas, too little too late. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Michigan Field Office, more than half of the state's corn crop is in poor or very poor condition.
"Field corn is most severely impacted by the drought. Record heat hampered pollination to a point where it's very difficult to predict with any certainty what the actual crop will be, both in terms of actual bushels per acre and with respect to the actual acres that'll be harvested, as opposed to chopped for silage or abandoned altogether," Boehm said. "But we're on the northern edge of the Corn Belt and better off than states south of us, where corn comprises a much larger portion of their overall farm economy."
Conversely, 60% of soybeans are in fair or good condition, as well as more than 70% of dry beans.
"Soys seem to have been able to handle the drought well so far," Boehm said. "They aren't growing rapidly, but they're in kind of a holding pattern, waiting for rain."
Recent rains were sufficient for most soybean plants to set pods—a critical milestone in the plant's development.
"Soybean crops are typically made with August rains, while corn is built on July moisture," Boehm said. "I think we can still hope for a decent soybean crop here in Michigan, if we get some rain in August."
The dry conditions have kept plant diseases from flourishing in edible bean crops. Notoriously susceptible to no end of ailments, most bean varieties are holding their own and developing well. Growers report navy, black and other bean varieties are blossoming and setting pods, depending on the variety.
Michigan is the no. 2 producer of dry beans after North Dakota, and the top grower of black, cranberry and small red beans.
Sugar beet growers are reporting their sweet root crops are generally doing well, with most areas showing little stress yet from the lack of rain, in part because the plant is naturally accustomed to digging deep into the soil for moisture.
Livestock farmers nervous
The vast majority of row crops—corn and soybeans, especially—go toward feeding livestock. Accordingly, cattlemen, swine producers and poultry farmers have a keen eye on drought conditions' impact on pasture, hay and feed crops.
Between low nationwide corn stocks to start the year and prospects for a fair 2012 crop fading, the price of corn and other feedstock commodities has soared. Feed will not only be more expensive, it will also be in short supply.
Farmers must also be wary of prematurely cutting drought-stressed corn for use as silage, a nutritious blend of chopped and partially fermented plant material. The stalks of underdeveloped corn plants, especially those stunted by drought, can sometimes contain unhealthy levels of nitrates, stored up in anticipation of developing an ear. Silage made from such corn often needs to be diluted with other feed to maintain maximum nutritional value.