The heat beats down on a drought-stricken soybean field in the county.  (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
The heat beats down on a drought-stricken soybean field in the county. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
As the final hour approaches for area cash crops, Purdue University agriculture experts say the drought-plagued terrain might make for an early and barren harvest season in Indiana.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently projected that Indiana could face its worst harvest on record for corn. The agency has estimated that corn will yield about 100 bushels per acre statewide, which would be a 38 percent decrease from last year. Soybeans are projected to yield 37 bushels per acre, down eight bushels from last year.

Purdue University experts and extension agents from across the state met with dozens of farmers on Thursday at the Southeast Purdue Agriculture Center in Butlerville to discuss options for those hit hard by the persistent drought.

The U.S. is on course to take a hit of more than $77 billion from this year's drought, according to Purdue University economist Chris Hurt. By comparison, that is nearly the same financial devastation brought on by the 1988 drought.

"It's a big deal on a national scale," Hurt said.

With the dismal crop production in the Midwest, corn prices have been on the rise since the spring. During planting time, corn was at $5 per bushel and now is at $8 per bushel. Hurt said because of higher prices, those with crop insurance might be able to weather the bad year and could even see profits.

"But even though the prices are up, zero yields still don't bring you any revenue," he said.

And because some farmers might have signed future delivery contracts with grain buyers, they might be forced to buy back the bushels they are unable to supply, he said.

"That could just be a terrible financial disaster for some people," he said.

Jefferson County has about 30,000 acres of corn and about 25,000 acres of soybeans, as well as several hundred acres of tobacco. Typical corn yields in the county are about 125 bushels an acre, while soybeans yield about 40 to 50 bushels an acre. Most corn in the county was planted in April or May.

During the meeting Thursday, Bob Nielsen, Purdue Extension agronomist, said a late rain could help corn development, even if it produces just a few more bushels an acre.

"I know, I know," he said, agreeing with the crowd's collective skepticism about rain in the forecast. "In a normal year, we sort of downplay the importance of late rains, but when a crop is stressed as bad as it is this year, even up to the bitter end there is an opportunity to pack a few more bushels in."

Nielsen advised farmers to walk fields, check for molds, attempt yield estimates and check for dried and hollowed-out stalks and fallen ears. Corn entering survival mode might show signs of "stalk rot," which makes the plant likely to tip over or produce smaller corn. In severe cases, the cob will fall off the stalk, which makes it impossible to harvest.

"With some of the storm systems that we have, you just can't risk leaving this stuff in the ground too long," he said.

On the positive side, he said the corn will use every last bit of resources it has to flow carbohydrates to the kernels.

"Every one of these plants in the field thinks its God's gift to corn and that it's their job to maintain the species," he said. "So, the plant will do everything in its power to make sure that the kernel survives."

Nielsen said it's important to identify the problem in the field, because farmers typically cannot file for crop insurance if problems such as mold are discovered once the crop is in storage. Furthermore, he said, grain elevators or ethanol plants will not accept the product if it has molding.

Specifically this year, aflatoxin has made its way into some Midwest crops. The mold is typically found in extremely dry areas, such as Oklahoma or Texas. But because Indiana has been bone-dry this year, the mold has hit crops across the state, Nielsen said.

"The good news is that it is covered by your insurance, but the bad news is that you might have it," he said.

To lower the risk of a crops contracting the mold, he said farmers should consider harvesting the crop while it is still wet, because the mold hits during the corn's drier stages in the field.

But while it's been a watershed year for poor crop development, Nielsen said he is not convinced that farmers should approach next year in a completely different manner. However, he said farmers might want to rethink being too aggressive with their corn seeding rate per acre.

"A year like this certainly points out that a severe drought can take you over the edge if you're being too aggressive," he said.

Shaun Casteel said that the soy bean crops across the state likely will vary in production. He said he has estimated fields at only 10 to 15 bushels an acre, while others drew an estimate of 40 to 45 bushel an acre. A common misconception is that a bigger plant will develop more pods.

"Short beans don't always mean short yields," he said.

In the southern region of the state, he said, earlier soybeans have been able to survive and do well, but "if you drive two hours north of here, that's not the case."

Casteel also reiterated Nielsen's advice about farmers walking through the fields to check the plants, and gave farmers a sheet of paper explaining how to estimate soybeans.

"We just don't know what we have until we walk the field," he said.