'Rainfed' corn more like 'rain starved' this year

Monday, August 13, 2012

The university officials recently changed the designation of corn grown without irrigation from "dryland" to "rainfed."

This year, maybe they should have made that "rain starved," with most farmers forced to write off their dryland corn, forced to turn it into silage or try to use it as animal feed somehow, if even that is possible.

Corn is selling for an unheard-of $8 a bushel because of high demand for ethanol production in addition to traditional animal feed, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects Nebraska's corn crop to be 13 percent lower than last year, the smallest crop since 2006.

Based on Aug. 1 conditions, Nebraska farmers will bring in 1.34 billion bushels from 9.1 million acres, the fields to be harvested for grain down 5 percent from a year ago.

Even irrigated corn is suffering, with average yield predicted at 147 bushels an acre, the lowest since 2003.

If the weather weren't enough bad news, today's front page includes a story about the Kansas-Nebraska water dispute trial, and a story about the Middle Republican Natural Resources District's use of the occupation tax -- $9.50 per irrigated acre -- in part to deal with groundwater management dictated by the Republican River conflict.

At the trial, which began today in Portland, Maine, a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court will take evidence and recommend a resolution.

Kansas says Nebraska is violating a 2003 settlement over use of water in the Republican River basin, claiming its neighbor to the north used 78,000 acre feet of water more than it was entitled to from 2005 through 2006.

The legal connection between groundwater and surface water is a shotgun marriage at best, and it's ironic that Nebraska is being punished for conservation measures, encouraged by national policy, that keep fertile soil from being washed away from Southwest Nebraska fields along with the water Kansas covets.

Still, the current drought -- which sees McCook nearly 81⁄2 inches below normal in rainfall for the year, and which came far too soon for us to recover from the last drought -- should be a reminder that we can't count on rainfall and should adjust our agricultural and economic enterprises and expectations to new realities.

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