What should be a green waving field of thigh-high corn is a burned landscape that shows the effects of the dry, hot weather of the last month. The corn crop in Marquette County may be 75 to 90% lost if substantial rain doesn’t come soon. (Photo by Kathleen McGwin)
Heat, drought, bring problems to
By Kathleen McGwin
Marquette County is one of 42 Wisconsin counties that are included in Governor Scott Walker’s declaration of drought emergency that was issued on Monday, July 9. In a statement announcing the state of emergency, Walker said, “The lack of rainfall since May in the southern half of the state has hit hard in a crucial part of the growing season. Farm families are suffering under the stress and worry, but this is also a matter of statewide importance. Agriculture adds more than $59 billion to our economic output every year, and accounts for 354,000 jobs – one in every 10 Wisconsinite depends on agriculture for employment. It’s a vital sector of our economy that we need to protect.”
Central Wisconsin has had record-breaking heat and that coupled with lack of rainfall has created dangerous and worrisome conditions. As of Friday, no roads were buckling in Marquette County from the heat according to Highway Commissioner Brendon Rhinehart, but he said in a phone interview he was aware of that happening in some surrounding counties.
On July 5, the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office reported that in central Wisconsin, 74 percent of topsoil was rated very short or short of moisture, increasing from 39 percent reported in the previous week. NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports as of July 3 that Marquette County is in an area of abnormally dry conditions. The heat and dry conditions prompted the DNR to issue emergency burning restrictions as of June 29 because of elevated risk of fire.
“If we don’t get significant rainfall in the next week to ten days,” said Town of Buffalo grain farmer Bob Miller, “I estimate that 75 to 90% of the corn crop in Marquette County will be lost.”
Miller plants about 1100 acres of corn and explained the critical timing for corn to pollinate. If silks don’t emerge for pollination to occur, no kernels develop on the corn. Driving around Marquette County, you can see field after field of corn that has failed to grow as it should.
“In my 37 years of farming, I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Miller. “It’s worse than 1988. I worry about my dairy farm friends, too. If we don’t get rain they won’t have hay.”
The UW-Extension website has posted a warning about pasture animals eating toxic plants when other forage is not available during drought. The Marquette County Multi Hazard Mitigation Plan published in 2008 includes historical drought information. It states, “Wisconsin Emergency Management documented several regional droughts that impacted Marquette County. The most significant was from 1929 to 1934, following that was a drought from 1976 to 1977, which caused approximately $624 million dollars in agricultural loss. The drought of 1987 to 1988 was believed to be the most severe, causing between 30% and 60% crop loss, with agricultural losses set at $1.3 billion for the region.
In recent history, NOAA documented droughts in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007. The 2002 drought resulted in over $4.4 million in agricultural loss statewide. The Wisconsin Emergency Management has documented five significant droughts in the state since 1930. Therefore, the future probability of a significant drought is about 10% in any given year. It appears that the frequency of droughts—significant and relatively minor—has increased over the past several years. For example, according to NOAA, four droughts between 2002 and 2007 have occurred. This suggests that the chance that a dry period classified as a drought (in Wisconsin) has up to a 50% chance of happening in any given year.”
Wildlife is suffering, too. DNR Wildlife Technician Jim Holzwart reported fish kills on Puckaway. Northern, walleye and bluegills are dotting the waters belly up. Off the causeway in Packwaukee on Buffalo Lake, hundreds of dead fish could be seen floating belly up on Saturday and more reported near Endeavor and at Grand River.
Holzwart said that Marquette County has not had significant rain since the third week of June and that higher water temperatures, lower water levels and decreasing oxygen levels in the water can threaten fish. He said that exposed mud flats from low water can have advantageous effects in some cases, exposing more plants and food for animals, but this also can mean water drying up before waterfowl have finished nesting and raising their young.
“On the other hand, there are fewer deer flies and mosquitoes to bother us and wildlife,” he said, adding that while dry, hot weather can be stressful on animals, most animals know how to adjust.
But the greatest economic impact of the dry, hot weather may be crop damage which has a ripple effect like no other. Higher corn prices mean higher ethanol prices, higher milk prices as well as higher meat and egg prices because grain and other feed will cost more. Machinery sales suffer and the economy slows down.
Miller said that farmers who have federal crop insurance will get some money to cushion the loss, but not cover it all. Added to this, corn prices will be higher next year when they go to purchase to plant.
“It’s not just the money either,” he said. “It’s driving out of your driveway and every way you look you see dry fields. It’s about pride in what we grow and it’s the emotional pain of seeing this happen to your work.”
He went on, “You take this on when you decide to be a farmer and you know it’s part of what you do. You have a bad year, but then you look forward to the next.”