“The biggest thing to do now is to keep praying for rain.”
That was Marion County Agricultural Extension Agent Rickey Roberts’ best assessment for what farmers can do with 100-degree days without rain extending into weeks.
But is there anything more to be done?
The most immediate human action, in what is now being called a drought from southcentral and southwest Kansas across Oklahoma, parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and on down through Texas, is the release of Conservation Reserve Program grassland for grazing and haying in this area.
In the hardest hit state, Texas, 72 percent of its area is classified in “exceptional drought” with little hope of recovery.
Bill Harmon, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency office for Marion County, said cattle producers have been coming to the office requesting that CRP land, nearly always planted in native grass here, be released for both haying and grazing.
The haying request was granted this week and not earlier, Harmon said, in order for USDA not to disrupt the nesting season for birds that raise young in the tall grass.
Marion County had alfalfa and bromegrass hay crops that were below normal this year, and Harmon said native grass hay probably won’t fare much better.
He said moisture conditions have been better this year in the northeastern part of the county with a reduction in rainfall going southwest.
The area south of Goessel, joined with neighboring Harvey and McPherson counties, is classified by the Kansas Drought Monitor and the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in severe drought status. The rest of Marion County is classified as being in moderate drought status.
The Kansas Water Office classifies 62 counties as being under drought status with three counties classified in emergency status.
KWO said drought conditions may ease in the coming month because the La Nina effect is fading, and the “El Nino oscillation” is neutral.
In this area, KWO designated Harvey County in “drought disaster,” McPherson County in “drought warning,” and Marion, Chase and Dickinson counties in “drought watch.”
The U.S. Geological Survey has classified both Marion Reservoir and the Cottonwood River at Florence at below normal levels.
Harmon said if producers are fortunate enough to have hay to sell, or if they are searching for hay to retain livestock through the coming season, they can go to his agency website that provides hay advertising during this crisis. The site is fsa.usda.gov/haynet.
Roberts said most Harvey County corn has already been chopped or cut for livestock feed because of inadequate rain for grain development.
“McPherson County is in bad, bad shape, too,” he added.
Roberts cautioned that as farmers here “make hard decisions” on whether corn will produce sufficient grain yields, or whether it should be cut for animal feed, they need to check it for nitrate levels that could prove toxic to cattle.
Roberts said the high heat and drought conditions of the past two weeks have led to poor pollination in corn. With the variation in rainfall and soil types, he said some fields may yield up to 75 bushels to the acre while others fail to make grain at all.
“Corn is really anybody’s guess,” he said. “On some of the bottomland it has a real chance, but there’s a lot of badly damaged corn out there, too.”
The soybeans and milo “will hang on for a while,” he added. He expects those crops to have reduced yields, but they could develop if some timely rain arrives.
Though conditions are worsening in Marion County, not far away at Sylvia along U.S. Highway 50 in Reno County, there are reports of the drought-dried sandy soil blowing across the highway.
Morton County in southwest Kansas, reports 2.99 inches of rain since last September while 19 inches is normal. Morton County Extension Agent Tim Jones said agriculture there is at a “complete standstill” and “very bleak.”
At least here there is still hope for more crops to harvest, Roberts said—if prayers for rain are answered.