Weather records from the National Drought Mitigation Center indicate more of the 48 states are listed at some level of drought this year than at any time since 1988.
Less than a half inch of rain has been recorded in the area from Sioux City to Spirit Lake since Memorial Day.
Locally, there's been no measurable rain since June and crops are showing signs of the abnormally dry conditions which is the National Drought Mitigation Center's assessment of drought in the county as of July 10.
Jeff Davis, Plymouth County Farm Service Agency (FSA) executive director traveled the county Tuesday to look at crops for routine spot checks of compliance with FSA programs.
The tour confirmed what's on the minds of Plymouth County farmers.
"It does look pretty tough around here," Davis said.
The impact of dry conditions and prolonged heat varies from field to field, Davis said.
"You can have two fields side by side -- one looks pretty good and one is gone and you wonder what the differences were," Davis said.
The soil type is a factor but other reasons for the crop variations aren't as easily explained.
"I think the lighter soils in the western half of the county and the hills are real tough right now, he said. "But there's places in the eastern half of the county that look pretty tough also."
The tour also showed the Farm Service Agency administrator that there's a difference in the way crops are tolerating the dry conditions this growing season.
"I think the corn is looking a lot tougher than the soybeans are right now," he said.
Davis' crop survey confirmed what's on the mind of farmers countywide.
"Everybody needs a rain," he said.
That's true for the family farm operation Adam Schmidt of Craig is part of.
Schmidt is a young livestock and grain farmer whose heritage includes a farm that's been in the family for a century.
"We've never seen anything even close to this," Schmidt said. "The tough part is the livestock industry is going to take it the worst."
He explained there's less of a safety net for livestock producers because there isn't a program similar to crop insurance for cattle, hogs and dairy.
Search for solutions
Lack of rain and heat relief in the forecast drew approximately 250 farmers, landowners, lenders, accountants and crop insurance specialists to a drought management meeting Thursday in Le Mars.
Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach in Plymouth County hosted the meeting with experts such as Extension Agronomist Joel DeJong, of Le Mars.
Some producers will try to salvage some of their corn or beans because they hate to see a crop out in the field do nothing, DeJong said.
For those who make that choice, DeJong emphasized timing of the harvest for silage.
"Rule No. 1 -- the corn is usually wetter than you think," he said. "Guys have a tendency to run and get the silage chopper out early."
Corn may look "like crud" and the leaves may be all curled up, but leaves are typically only a small percentage of the dry matter, DeJong explained.
"A big percentage is the stalk and that stalk holds water for quite a long time," he said.
The moisture in corn for silage should be 65-70 percent for silage going into a bunker or ag bag and 60-65 percent for an upright silo, he said.
The moisture amount needs to be at 20 percent for baling corn stover to prevent mold or fires, DeJong advised.
"Do some testing; get it down to 20 percent moisture -- it's an analysis issue, it isn't a guessing issue," he said.
As producers search for solutions to parched crops, DeJong is also answering questions about salvaging soybeans.
"Yes, you can bale them, you can make silage out of them," De Jong said. "The best forage value is when there are still leaves on."
He also emphasized the importance of talking to a producer's crop insurance representative before harvesting.
Some producers who plan to make silage or green chop corn as an immediate source of feed are monitoring nitrates in their growing corn to make sure the levels aren't toxic to cattle.
ISU Extension Beef Specialist Beth Doran tested dozens of corn stalks prior to the start of the drought management meeting.
The concentration of nitrates needs to be tested so producers know how much nitrate they're dealing with and feed accordingly, she said.
"We were testing for the presence, not how much there is," Doran said. "Is it there? Yes, we saw it present in all the corn stalks," Doran said.
Commercial laboratories will provide test results of corn sampled for nitrate levels, she said.
She's researched a question about adding urea, a nitrogen, to corn silage and it isn't recommended because it could compound the nitrogen problem, she said.
DeJong said some people compare this season's conditions to widespread drought in 1955, but there's a big difference between 1955 and today.
"Today, there's this thing called crop insurance that keeps you from going broke one shot," he told the meeting group. "So, hopefully you planned and managed well."
About 90 percent of Iowa corn and soybean acres are covered by multi-peril crop insurance, said Dr. William Edwards, an extension economist.
Edwards, the ISU extension economist had five suggestions for producers to manage drought:
* rethink marketing plans
* revise the 2012 cash flow budget
* talk to your lender
* assess your liquidity
* get an income tax estimate
* postpone equipment purchases
Producers won't find assistance for natural disaster losses at the Farm Service Agency office in Le Mars, according to Davis.
Haying and grazing of land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) isn't allowed in Plymouth County yet.
The county didn't meet the criteria to be considered Drought Level 2 in the geographic areas designated this week by the United States Department of Agriculture, he said.
"Maybe next week we will but that would only allow us grazing on CRP until Aug. 2 and then potentially haying after that," Davis said.
If there is a drought designation to allow CRP acres to be grazed or baled for hay, the acres available would be slightly more than 5,000.
"That's not a big program," Davis said.
Help for grain and livestock producers may be tied to a new Farm Bill which is currently stalled in Congress.
"What the new Farm Bill holds is the big thing so I'd say contact congressmen, senators to either get something implemented from the old Farm Bill or to get the new Farm Bill in place," he said.
If drought aid is added to farm legislation, Doran said good records would be useful.
"Keep good pictures, accurate inventories, get records from rendering businesses, have vets post animals," she said.
The impact of dry conditions on livestock and the trickle down to local economies will be reported in the second story in this series next week in the Daily Sentinel.