For the first time in his farming life, Shelley Bruha of Dorchester now can say he’s harvested corn in the first full week of August.
Based on the results, he’d be willing to wait a long time before doing it again.
A withered, unirrigated field that normally would produce 120 to 130 bushels per acre managed 40 in the driest Nebraska growing season in decades.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” the 69-year-old Bruha responded when asked about his earliest harvest ever.
“Sometimes, the first part of September, we might have harvested,” he added, “but never the first part of August.
"Nobody has, I don’t believe.”
When cornfields are drained of their bright green color completely and so early, farmers don’t call them ripe. They call them dead.
And across the state and across the nation, crop estimates for 2012 felt the dead weight of a crushing drought Friday.
In their first state-by-state production assessment, federal forecasters slashed estimates for production of corn, soybeans and other crops by double digits.
Despite the biggest corn planting since the 1930s, the August crop report put corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from 2011. Nebraska production came in at 1.34 billion bushels, also down 13 percent from last year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
If that forecast holds, the Nebraska crop would be the smallest since 2006.
On the soybean side, the latest national outlook calls for 2.69 billion bushels, down 12 percent from 2011. At the state level, expected soybean production is at 215 million bushels, down 17 percent and in line to be the smallest crop since 2007.
Statistics gatherers interviewed more than 28,000 producers across the country to help gauge the harvest outlook.
Most of what they found out wasn’t good.
Nebraska, the most heavily irrigated state in the nation and typically third in corn production, withstood the punishment better than Iowa and Illinois, the top two corn states.
Iowa expectations are down 18.6 percent from last year and Illinois 25.1.
Clay Bradley, a Lincoln-based commodities trader, thinks the final numbers could be much different, and perhaps lower, because of the uneven effects of corn standing for weeks without any rain relief.
“This is as hard a task as they’ve ever had,” he said of those in charge of the crop report, “because we have not really had a bone-jarring drought like this since 1988.”
The implications of a growing season gone wrong on the Nebraska economy, food prices, ground and surface water supplies, and on competition from grain buyers in the livestock, ethanol and export sectors remain to be seen.
Kelly Brunkhorst of the Nebraska Corn Board wasn’t ready to try to gauge the effect of irrigation wells pumping at rates of 1,000 gallons a minute for weeks, with only brief interruptions.
“Let’s pray for good, wet snowfalls during the winter,” Brunkhorst said, “and I think that will give us an indication of where we’re headed going into next year.”
Irrigation helped Nebraska yields, he said, although the cost of pumping so much water will be higher than normal.
On the other hand, “a lot of acres were cut for silage, especially dryland.”
Dorchester farmer Bruha is equally uncertain about the conditions of his water resources.
“I have no idea where we’ll end up,” he said, “but we’ve definitely taken a lot of water out of the ground this year.”
Futures prices for corn and soybeans, which have hit record levels this summer, headed in opposite directions on the Chicago Board of Trade as buyers and sellers reacted to the production numbers.
Corn for December delivery fell about 13 cents to $8.26 a bushel. November soybeans rose by 12½ cents to $16.32.
“To outsiders,” Bradley said, “they hear about drought for the first time and they think, ‘Wow, that must mean grain prices need to go higher.’ They’ve already gone higher.”
Across the state, in both irrigated and non-irrigated fields, soybeans have retained their green color for the most part. Victor Bohuslavsky of the Nebraska Soybean Board said that might not matter in the end.
To form and fill seed pods, they will need something more than half-inch showers.
Beyond that, Bohuslavsky said, “what we’re up against is that soybeans are a light-sensitive crop and we’re going to shorter days.”
On the plus side, he said, the drought tolerance of both soybeans and corn is much improved since the 1988 crop debacle in the Midwest, as is the efficiency of irrigation equipment and the use of no-till planting to conserve moisture.
“This is probably the worst drought we’ve ever seen,” he said, “but we’ve probably got a little more out there than we had back then in the field.”
Sometimes an early harvest doesn’t say much about relentless heat, sweat in your eyes and restless sleep.
“It’s been a long season,” Bruha said.