Early drought threatens Alabama corn

Never in the course of his Extension career — first as a grains agronomist, later as an administrator — has Paul Mask seen anything to compare with the unseasonably dry and warm spring that has descended on Alabama.

But as a seasoned agronomist who once specialized in corn and other grain crops, Mask isn’t ready to panic — yet — despite the rising apprehension among many Alabama farmers whose fervent hopes are riding on corn this year.

For now, at least, the bone-dry conditions in many Alabama fields are not causing grave harm to planted seed, he says. Granted, there may be some minimal loss of seed quality, coupled with some damage from birds and insects, but that’s not what concerns Mask.

What really concerns him — and many farmers — is the time factor.

“You really want to get corn off and growing pretty quickly,” Mask says, adding that this is why farmers plant corn early — “anything to get silking and tassling well under way before the usual stretch of dry weather arrives in the summer.”

On the other hand, if growth is stalled, corn becomes far more vulnerable to the effects of dry weather — precisely the factor associated with this persistently dry spring that worries him.

Even so, Mask, the product of a farming background, learned long ago to remain doggedly optimistic.

“In a week or so, we can get some rain, but who really knows?”

It’s precisely this uncertainty that is keeping a growing number of farmers up every night, especially those in north Alabama, who decided months ago to abandon some or all of their cotton acreage to capitalize on the growing demand for corn. For some, it was the first time in more than a generation that they had considered planting corn.

Heath Potter, an Extension agent in northwest Alabama, says he’s already talked to one farmer whose enthusiasm for corn has turned as dry as the weather.

“He said that if he didn’t get any rain by last Wednesday, he was turning in every bag of corn he had intended to plant.”

He is not alone, Potter says. Because of the unusually dry growing conditions, he says farmers are “starting out this year the way we finished last year’s growing season — discouraged.”

Anticipating a fever-pitch interest in corn earlier this year, Potter had planted demonstration plots, hoping to hold a series of grower meetings and field tours in the summer. But as he has learned through experience, farmers, “just don’t like socializing with other farmers during bad crop years.” And this year very well could turn out to be one of the worst, he fears.

“The moral is low. Spring typically is the season of growth and optimism for growers. But from my own experience, I’m sitting here and can’t even remember the last time it’s rained at my house — so in circumstances like that, it’s hard to remain optimistic.”

This holds doubly true for growers who “already have contracted a lot of corn,” Potter says.

In neighboring Franklin County, Extension Coordinator Tim Reed is aware of 11 growers in his county and adjoining Lawrence County who already have booked (contracted to grow) roughly a half million bushels of corn, anticipating an especially good year for the crop.

“They had to book it because prices are so good,” Reed says. “But if they’ve booked the corn for $4 a bushel and can’t make the crop, they’re going to have to make up the difference.”

One option for growers who have not made prior commitments is to switch to some other crop, such as cotton, which can still be planted later in the growing season. But, again, this boils down to weather. If the rains don’t eventually come, farmers will be caught in the same fix.

“Yes, there’s an opportunity to jump into some other crop, but as one farmer told me recently, that just means you face the risk of losing more than one crop in a year,” says Dale Monks, an Extension agronomist, who adds that concerns about dry growing conditions are emerging throughout the state.

“What’s happening in north Alabama pretty much is starting to occur in much of the rest of the state,” says Monks, who is especially concerned with the loss of soil moisture.

“Soil moisture is leaving and we didn’t really have good moisture over the winter to start with.”

Meanwhile, in west central Alabama, Regional Agent Leonard Kuykendall is advising growers to think in terms of crop diversity.

“I’m advising them to spread their risk by planting corn and early-season soybeans,” Kuykendall say, “because early beans can wait on rain better than corn.

“If you get some July rains, you can still get soybeans.”

But the operative word here is “if.”

As any Extension professional will readily attest, the eternal uncertainty associated with fickle nature is one of the great ironies associated with their profession.

“It’s one of the things my old boss and my Dad (a retired Extension agent) told me when I first hired on with Extension,” Potter recalls.

“You can do everything in the world to educate farmers about how to make the right decisions. But in the end, they have to count on the sun and rain to do the work.”

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