Drought declared in Rock County
JANESVILLE Jim Stute hasn't seen it this dry since 1988, when Rock County farmers lost 50 percent or more of their yield.
"The last rain that year fell on Mother's Day, and except for small, period rains like the ones we're getting now, it didn't rain until September," said Stute, UW Extension crops and soil specialist.
At 6 a.m. Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association declared drought conditions in Rock County.
In a report issued Monday, the USDA predicted that without rain this week, some acreage would not produce anything.
The report estimated 98 percent of soil in south central Wisconsin was dry or very dry. Wheat harvests are under way, and yields are down significantly.
The severity of the drought is compounded by the lack of snowfall last winter, Stute said.
"We're about 2 inches behind on winter moisture levels," Stute said. "We've used all the moisture reserves in the top 4 to 5 feet of soil."
Moisture stress is universal throughout the county. Stute was especially troubled when he witnessed curled leaves in a cornfield at 6 a.m. Thursday morning. Leaves curl when the plant is in severe moisture stress, and it usually doesn't happen until noon or later.
"If it's showing up that early, we know it's serious," he said.
A day of severe moisture stress costs a cornfield 3 percent of its yield. Calculating how long a field has been severely stressed is complicated by variables such as soil type and planting date, but Stute said some fields have been afflicted for about 10 to 14 days.
A solid rainfall, an inch or more, could bring crops back from the brink.
"The crops will hang in there, but we just need a good rain," Stute said.
"I think the corn is holding out better than we thought it would," said Peter Daluge, who farms 160 acres and milks 140 cows south of Janesville. "The new hybrids are withstanding it pretty good."
The Janesville wastewater treatment plant reports a measly 0.65 inches of rainfall since June 1, most of it coming sporadically, one-tenth of an inch at a time. The June average is 4.3 inches.
Mindy Tracy, a crop insurance specialist at Badgerland Financial, said the drought is most severe in places with light, sandy soil, such as Orfordville and Easy Troy.
"Walworth County, and Elkhorn especially, is the worst I've seen," she said.
"On sandier soil, the corn is curled, and it's staying curled," Daluge said.
Growers rely on irrigation systems, but they are neither cheap nor easy. Stute said roughly 5 percent of arable land in Rock County is irrigated.
"It is a stop-gap, and it's also an awfully big investment," said Kirk Leach, who raises 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans and peas south of Janesville. About 500 of his acres are irrigated. "Our estimated guess (of operating costs) is $1.75 per acre, per inch of water."
The situation is getting dire enough that many farmers will file claims with crop insurance.
Tracy estimated 60 to 70 percent of growers in Rock County have their crops insured. The most popular policy helps farmers recoup costs when their revenues fall below 70 or 75 percent of a 10-year average.
"Even if it rains in the next few days, a 25 to 30 percent yield loss is still possible," Tracy said.
Daluge expects to file a claim with federal crop insurance for the first time this year. Daluge's crops feed his dairy herd. He will use the insurance money to overcome the shortage caused by diminished yields. He foresees alfalfa yields falling off by as much as 40 percent.
"I'm sure crop insurance will be the salvation this year," Stute said.