Northeast plains corn crop in good shape

The great divide continued to stand in Colorado through the late summer, which of course wouldn’t be news if we were talking mountains.

But for agricultural interests, the great divide runs east-west across the eastern plains, where plentiful moisture in northeastern Colorado sharply contrasted with moderate and severe drought in southeastern areas of the state.

Most local experts figured the northeast, where most of the state’s corn is grown, would continue to have a good year. However, some consternation was caused by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August report, which downgraded expectations for the corn crop in the state.

“I was sitting here with the head of the Farm Bureau and Colorado Corn, and we couldn’t figure it out,” said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University. “The only thing we had going against us in northeastern Colorado was the hail damage.”

Still, the USDA was calling for the state’s production to be down 11 percent from last year — to 62.5 million bushels — despite a 3-percent increase in planted acres. The average yield was also expected to fall to 130 bushels per acre, down 21 bushels from last year, due to dry conditions and more dryland production, according to the report.

“The big drop in production, compared to the July report, is clearly due to the summer heat wave that slammed the corn crop during pollination,” reported Todd Davis, the crops economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

But that heat affected corn crops throughout the Midwest, pushing prices up about 24 percent since July 1, with the futures price near the end of Aug at $7.243 a bushel at the Chicago Board of Trade.

Waskom said he expected dryland corn farmers in northeastern Colorado to do fairly well, with the sustained summer rainfall.

“There was plentiful irrigation water and pretty decent summer rains. Things (such as rainfall and soil moisture readings) have caught up and look great,” he said. “Though, I don’t think the dryland yields are going to be exceptional.”

Waskom said the soil moisture is also going to be great up here for planting winter wheat, which is also starting up. But everything that’s good in the north, is turned upside down in southeastern Colorado, where the drought line cut a swath across the state.

“It is basically is a line across the state following (U.S.) Highway 50,” Waskom said. Below that highway — which runs from Canon City through Pueblo and the melon fields of Rocky Ford to Holly at the Kansas border — it’s a different world. Some areas have received only a fraction of normal precipitation.

Down south, prices for average quality hay ranged between $200 and $300 per ton, compared to $130 a ton last year. In northeastern Colorado drought conditions were already pushing up prices in July, but still only ranging from about $140 to $150 a ton.

Much of this was predictable, said Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken, though in actuality it may have been difficult to believe how predictable it actually was this year. The winter storms that blasted the northern Colorado mountains — and even the southern mountains had an average year — are expected during a La Nina year, a periodic climate fluctuation marked by a cooling of tropical Pacific Ocean water.

“But it has been more typical than typical,” Doesken said. “You usually expect some variance (in the storm paths), but except for an early winter storm (that slipped on a more southerly track), there’s been no variance.”

Even as La Nina faded — and it may be back this fall — the pattern continued to hammer northern Colorado during the spring and summer months, while keeping Colorado’s southeastern plains in the same high-pressure area that keeps Texas and much of the southern U.S. parched.

Both high precipitation and drought are difficult patterns to break during summer months, Doesken said, because the slower-moving storms are highly reliant on the local availability of evaporated water. In effect, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

But Colorado corn producers still need for prices to stay high and the crops to come in. How well they will do is still up for some debate.

“So much of our corn is grown in the northeast, it’s difficult to believe (the August USDA report),” Waskom said. “But those (USDA) guys are the experts, and we’ll see whether they are right or they are not.”

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