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Nebraska's crops doing better than neighbors', but drought could 'intensify very quickly'
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Nebraska's crops doing better than neighbors', but drought could 'intensify very quickly'

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Nebraska sent more than $9 billion worth of products to other countries in 2019. Everything from beef to animal feed to herbicides to salt. Here's a look at the state's top products.

OMAHA -- Compared with its neighboring states plagued by drought, Nebraska has fared well — so far anyway.

But that could change with the heat wave set to hit the state this week. And that could potentially affect Nebraska's crops.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, parts of North and South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming are dealing with extreme drought conditions.

According to Bloomberg News, in North Dakota, where the entire state is in a drought, hay crops are only 10% to 25% of normal, while cattle ranchers are already reducing herds by boosting animal sales at auction, Jeff Schafer, president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said during a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration webinar.

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“Producers have chosen to cut small grain fields for hay versus harvesting them for grain, as there just isn’t enough forage to bale,” Schafer said. Grains that should be “armpit-high” are “boot-high at best and typically, you can see a gopher run in front of your cutter bar,” he said.

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In Nebraska, severe drought has crept over the South Dakota border into parts of five counties in the northeast corner of the state. Pockets of moderate drought have been recorded in central and southern Nebraska and the Panhandle, according to the Drought Monitor.

Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said almost 22% of the state is currently experiencing some form of drought. The counties experiencing severe drought make up just about 2% of the state.

“In Nebraska, we’re holding the drought at bay right now,” he said. “But our fear is that these droughts can intensify very quickly.”

If that’s the case, then the agriculture industry will be waiting to see how the heat could affect crop yields.

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Right now, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the condition of Nebraska’s crops is quite strong.

A report shows that 76% of the 9.7 million acres of corn planted are in good or excellent condition. Of the 5.4 million acres of soybeans, 82% are considered in good or excellent condition.

According to Lance Honig, a representative of the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service, the condition of those crops puts Nebraska in the upper echelon of states.

Al Dutcher, Nebraska’s associate state climatologist, doesn’t see anything about the upcoming heat wave that causes him to worry about crop yields. That’s particularly the case for a corn crop that recently completed the critical silking, or pollination, stage.

“We've got the potential to have near-record to record yields if we can get a few precipitation events,” particularly in east-central and Southeast Nebraska, before the fall harvest, he said.

Dutcher estimated that corn yields could reach an average of 180 to 190 bushels per acre.

It’s a bit murkier outlook for soybeans because of the crop being in the middle of a key developmental stage.

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“Soybeans are the crop that, in two weeks’ time, you’re going to have an idea of how (the heat) is impacting what will be the harvest later on,” Svoboda said.

Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue echoed that sentiment.

"It's very dependent on what the weather is in August on soybean yields," he said. "I think it's decent on where it's at now. But we sure don't have the crop made by any stretch in Nebraska yet."

If the heat wave breaks later this week as forecast, Dutcher indicated that the soybean crop will likely hold up, particularly if a similar heat wave doesn’t follow the cooldown in temperatures. Precipitation would certainly help foster a strong soybean harvest.

“How the temperatures and precipitation unfold over the next three to four weeks is going to really determine whether we’re going to be one of the top producers, or if we’re really going to start to see yield reduction, particularly in a dry land environment,” he said.

Nebraska’s cattle ranchers will also keep a keen eye on the heat wave. Cattle need to be in areas with at least 3 to 6 inches of grass growth to graze without causing more damage to areas already affected by drought, according to Dutcher. He said that, as with crops, regular precipitation is key to ensuring an adequate supply of grazable grass this fall.

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Otherwise, Nebraska producers may end up competing for a limited supply of hay with farmers from drought-stricken states, similar to what happened the last time the state had an extended drought in 2012.

“This isn't nearly as severe as that yet,” Svoboda said. “If it goes dry and hot the next six weeks, yeah, it could start to really change the whole tone. But luckily, it’s not historic drought or anything at this point right now in Nebraska.”

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