Kentucky agriculture is reeling from a summertime one-two punch of blistering heat and dry conditions, and farmers are feeling the pain from the prospects of shrinking income and inflated expenses caused by weather-related setbacks.
Corn fields are shriveled, especially in the western Kentucky grain belt where the dry spell has been worst. Poultry farmers are being hit with higher grain prices to feed birds. And pastures turned to stubble, forcing cattle producers to dip into winter hay reserves.
“It’s a disaster and it’s going to affect every segment of agriculture, as well as every consumer in Kentucky,” state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said in a recent phone interview.
Shoppers will pay higher prices at grocery stores in coming months as drought bakes much of the nation’s farmland, he said.
Though rainfall picked up across much of Kentucky in July, the dry spell was unabated in far western Kentucky.
Paducah received just over 11/2 inches of rain in July through last Thursday, more than 2 inches below normal.
For the year, Paducah had just over 13 inches of precipitation, nearly 16 inches below normal, said Rachel Trevino, a National Weather Service meteorologist. A year ago, the western Kentucky city was swamped by nearly 49 inches of rain during the same period.
“We went from one extreme year to another extreme year,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
Elsewhere, precipitation deficits are much smaller. Bowling Green is nearly 51/2 inches below normal for 2012, London is 5 inches behind average, Lexington is nearly 4 inches behind and Louisville only a trace behind, said National Weather Service hydrologist Mike Callahan.
Western Kentucky grain farmers are feeling the full brunt from the dry spell. Corn yields in the western region could be down as much as 75 percent from normal, Comer said. The crop was damaged by triple-digit heat and lack of rain during pollination, and it never recovered.
Comer saw the devastation recently while inspecting a corn field near the Calloway-Marshall county line.
“We had to walk a long way out into the field before we ever got to a corn plant that actually had a cob on it,” he said. “We pulled the cob off. The corn was very irregular and had about a third of the kernels on it you would expect to see.”
In Graves County, corn farmers will be lucky to average 50 bushels an acre this year, a third of the typical countywide average, said Kenny Perry, the local agricultural extension agent.
“There’s not a thing in the world they can do about it,” Perry said. “It is what it is. We’ll get what we get from the crops and hopefully the (crop) insurance will kick in to cover our input costs.”
In Henderson County, corn yields are forecast at 80 to 110 bushels per acre, compared to 156 bushels an acre on average, said Mike Smith, the local ag extension agent. Some fields will muster a mere 20 bushels an acre, while others could yield 160 bushels per acre, he said.
Statewide, 77 percent of the corn crop was rated poor or very poor, according to last Monday’s report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s field office in Kentucky. Another 17 percent was fair, 5 percent good and 1 percent excellent.
Kentucky farmers planted 1.6 million acres of corn this year, up 16 percent from last year. It’s the state’s largest corn acreage since 1986.
Soybeans are showing signs of bouncing back from recent rains in some areas, and yields could end up a bit below average, Comer said.
In Graves County, however, yields for early-planted soybeans will be off at least 50 percent, Perry said. Later-planted beans look much better but need rain to produce decent yields, he said.
In Henry County in north-central Kentucky, crop prospects depend on where they’re situated.
The southern part of the county has gotten a few rains that aided crop development, said Steve Moore, the local ag extension agent. Northern sections of the county have been dry, and crops there are suffering, he said.
“Even if we got adequate rains now, some of that corn doesn’t make it,” Moore said.
Meanwhile, Kentucky cattle producers are facing prospects of hay shortages for winter.
The dry spell cut short summer grazing and forced cattlemen to start feeding hay months earlier than they’d like.
Hay supplies are down due partly to lower yields from the hot, dry weather. Also, many farmers converted hay ground into grain production in hopes of reaping the benefits of high grain prices, Comer said.
“Every beef cattle farmer I’ve talked to is short on hay,” he said.
Comer said his office is planning to set up a hotline to help farmers find hay. He said his department is trying to find available hay from other states and make arrangements to ship the supplies to the Bluegrass state.
Poultry producers and dairy cattle operators are suffering the most from the spike in corn prices, Comer said.
“Our dairy operators are already operating below break-even on their profit margins, and now the poultry farmers are, too,” he said.