Calculating drought's impact might need to wait
JANESVILLE A look at some cornfields in Rock County yields an obvious conclusion: The 2012 growing season is a disaster.
Investigation of fields, however, shows there's still hope for a crop.
"There are some fields that are dead and gone," said Judy Schambow, executive director of the Rock County Farm Service Agency. "They aren't coming back this year.
"Some fields are a total loss, some are a partial loss and some will be OK."
Recent rains have improved many stands of corn and dramatically brightened the outlook for the area's soybean production.
Both Schambow and Jim Stute, UW Extension crops and soils agent, said that while recent rains have helped, they've been spotty around the county.
The Evansville area, Schambow said, got nearly two inches of rain Saturday, while parts of Janesville got less than half an inch.
"While some of the crops are definitely looking better, we still need an inch of rain each week," Stute said.
According to Gazette weather data, rainfall in Janesville was below average in April, May, June and July. June was the driest, with recorded precipitation nearly four inches behind normal.
July was wetter, but still below average, and, so far in August, Janesville is running a precipitation deficit of about three-fourths of an inch.
Because of the statewide drought, Gov. Scott Walker in July declared a state of emergency in all 72 Wisconsin counties.
Two weeks ago, Rock, Walworth and 21 other counties were declared natural disaster areas in which farmers are eligible for low-interest loans.
The loans are intended to help farmers buy feed or whatever else they need to make it through to next year.
It's an alternative for farmers who don't carry crop loss insurance, Schambow said, adding that actual production losses often can't be calculated until harvests are done.
"Nobody gets filthy rich from crop insurance or these loan programs," she said. "It basically allows people to stay in business to fight another year."
Recent rains have narrowed the swath of land that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified as being in "extreme drought." Two weeks ago, the department's official drought monitor stretched much farther into southern Wisconsin than it did last week.
Whether the growing season of 2012 will go down as a sweeping disaster won't be known until harvest, Schambow said.
While some fields are improving, their rebound depends on continued rainfall and a lack of intense heat.
The recent cool-down helps soil hold moisture longer than when it's baked by searing heat, she said.
"We've had warm days and cool nights, and that lends itself very well to good growing conditions," she said.
Some crops, she said, are just too far gone.
Last week, Schambow watched as a cornfield declared a total loss was chopped for silage.
Some plants had decent ears, while others had either a kernel or two or none. Still others, she said, were black with smut.
"We still need rain, and it's still a disaster in some areas," she said. "As for the rest, we really won't know for a couple of more months—assuming we keep getting rain."