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Areas of drought identified in Wisconsin

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Heat stressed corn is quickly drying out in fields in some parts of Wisconsin thanks to lack of rainfall.

For the most part, Wisconsin has escaped drought conditions plaguing neighboring states. While the U.S. Drought Monitor included parts of western Wisconsin in its latest report, much of the growing conditions across the state continued to be favorable.

Wisconsin counties designated with abnormally dry conditions include Clark, Crawford, Jackson, Monroe and Richland. Buffalo, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Trempealeau and Vernon counties were elevated to moderate drought status. This is the first time the USDA has identified drought conditions in the state since 2018. '

From Aug. 11-18, rain totals in west-central Wisconsin were generally less than a half inch south of I-90 and anywhere from half to 1.5 inch between I-90/94.

Ashley Olson, ag educator for Vernon County said many farmers are concerned over the potential hay yield for third crop.

"If we don't get any rain what will fourth crop look like?" she said, adding that the county received only spotty rain showers as of late. "In the last week (the combination of heat and no rain) crops in general are starting to show signs of stress. Some farms are considering taking corn silage a week or two earlier because of the dry conditions and drying stalk."

Further north in Trempealeau County, county agent Steve Okonek said farmers have been taking advantage of the weather putting up good quality hay. However, corn and soybean crops have been impacted by the dry weather.

"Corn is experiencing tip die back on the cobs and smaller kernel size as the grain is not able to fill completely," Okonek said. Soybeans are not filling pods at the top of the plant and seed size will likely be smaller than normal."

Nearly half of Iowa has been impacted by drought conditions identified by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Other Corn Belt state in need of rain include Nebraska, western Illinois, eastern Indiana and Ohio.

The soil composition in western Wisconsin is also a factor, with lighter soils showing more drought stress than better soils.

"Rains have been spotty with some areas receiving more rain than others, so yield will ultimately depend on luck and soil type," he said.

A strong band of thunderstorms rolled across the state early Tuesday morning, dumping up to 4 inches in eastern Wisconsin. A heat advisory was released for western Wisconsin on Tuesday, with heat index values heading towards 100°F.

Parts of Waushara County received over an inch of rain on Tuesday, a welcome relief for crops in sandier soils, said Ken Williams, who serves part time as ag agent for the county. He said recent conditions are reminiscent of 2012.

"A great deal of our sandy fields are irrigated, those are basically ok. Fields that are not irrigated, some of these have nearly died with some corn fields already chopped off early to be salvaged for silage," Williams reported. "Some soybean fields have also dried up and yields will be severely reduced. Pasture and hay ground has also been hurt to the point where there is very little green in the fields."

Joe Lauer, UW-Madison Agronomy and Extension State Corn Specialist said Wisconsin as a whole is doing well compared to Iowa where nearly half the state is now part of a severe or extreme drought according to the USDA's weekly drought monitor. The derecho that blew across Iowa brought little rain, with southwestern portions of the state receiving just .01 and .75 inches of rain from the storm, the National Weather Service reported.

Growers irrigate crops growing in sandy soils in Waushara county.

"Ohio has been battling drought conditions all season so we've been pretty forunate," Lauer said.

As summer winds down, Lauer said corn plants need every bit of moisture to help fill the grain. 

"It's just a matter of finishing off the kernels and getting them to a more adequate size to have those good yields," he said. "Right now we're looking at a record yield with USDA's forecast of 181 bu/acre."

While that number may fluctuate when the next forecast is released in September, it's a more robust number than 2019's ending statewide corn yield average of 163 bu/acre.

"2019 was a whole different year with late planting and wet conditions. In fact, it was the third year in a row where we dealt with that wet weather pattern," Lauer said. "This year we're having an average year weather-wise – heat and timely rain."

Lauer says it is hard to predict what weather patterns will move across the Midwest as harvest nears, especially has hurricane season ramps up in the Gulf of Mexico. What he does know is what the corn crop needs to reach potential yield.

"During this last stretch, we ideally need an inch a rain a week. Right now the corn is using one-third of an inch a day. This demand is starting to go down to a one-quarter of an inch per day. But if we get that rain it's enough to keep things going along with using up all the reserves in the soil," Lauer said.

The corn crop also needs sunny, comfortable weather to finish maturing. Once temperatures top 90 degrees, Lauer said the plants shut down. Ideal weather for silage making, he said, is cooler, hazy weather that helps to slow down maturation, extending the harvest window.

"You don't want everything ready at once," he said. "Once silage season is over, we need bright sunny days to help dry down the crop. Last year we had such wet conditions that some farmers didn't have much choice but to leave crops standing into winter. I don't like to see that because there's so much yield loss due to ear drop and wildlife damage, but when you have to pay over $1/bu in drying costs that takes away the profit really quick."

According to the Wisconsin Crop Progress & Condition Report for the week ending August 23, 80% of the state's corn crop was at the dough stage or beyond, 25 days ahead of last year. Just 24% of the crop was dented. The crop is currently rates 81% good to excellent.

Ninety-three percent of soybean plants were setting pods, nearly a month ahead of last year's crop at this time. Just 7% of the state's soybean fields were beginning to turn color.

The third crop of alfalfa was reported as 87% complete, 15 days ahead of last year. Just 8% of the final cutting of alfalfa was reported across the state. Statewide hay conditions were rated as 76% good to excellent.