Drought now grips more than half of U.S.

  • Article by: JIM SUHR and STEVE KARNOWSKI , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 17, 2012 - 3:38 PM

Crop yields are tumbling, but Minnesota so far has mostly been spared.

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Stunted corn begins to shrivel in a field next to a cattle feed lot in rural Springfield, Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, July 17, 2012. The drought gripping the United States is the widest since 1956, according to new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Photo: Nati Harnik, Associated Press

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WALTONVILLE, ILL. - The nation's widest drought in decades is spreading, with more than half of the continental United States now in some stage of drought and most of the rest enduring abnormally dry conditions.

Only in the 1930s and the 1950s has a drought covered more land, according to federal figures released Monday. So far, there's little risk of a Dust Bowl-type catastrophe, but crop losses could mount if rain doesn't come soon.

In its monthly drought report, the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said that 55 percent of the country was in a moderate to extreme drought at the end of June. The parched conditions -- affecting crops, pastures and rangeland -- expanded last month in the West, the Great Plains and the Midwest, fueled by the 14th-warmest and 10th-driest June on record, the report said.

The percentage of affected land is the largest since December 1956, when 58 percent of the country was covered by drought.

Much of Minnesota has fended off the kind of drought that is plaguing more southerly states, but dry conditions are creeping in from the edges. Little or no rain fell across most of the state in the past week.

The continuing heat is likely to wring moisture out of an east-central Minnesota landscape soaked by record rains in May, said assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay of the Department of Natural Resources .

"The heat is really baking us out," Boulay said. "We'll continue the slide as long as this weather pattern continues."

Minnesota's farm fields are still in decent shape, but the continued lack of rain is stressing some crops, and topsoil moisture is becoming increasingly inadequate, according to data released Monday.

As of July 15, topsoil moisture in Minnesota was rated 47 percent adequate to surplus, down from 60 percent just the week before, according to the St. Paul office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Still, condition ratings for corn and soybeans remained primarily good, for the week ending July 15, the USDA said.

By contrast, in southern Illinois, Kenny Brummer has lost 800 acres of corn that he grows to feed his 400 head of cattle and 30,000 hogs. Now he's scrambling to find hundreds of thousands of bushels of replacement feed.

"Where am I going to get that from? You have concerns about it every morning when you wake up," said Brummer, who farms near Waltonville.

Around a third of the nation's corn crop has been hurt, with some of it so badly damaged that farmers have already cut down their withered plants to feed to cattle.

As of Sunday, the USDA reported, 38 percent of the corn crop nationwide was in poor or very poor condition, compared with 30 percent a week earlier.

"This is definitely the epicenter -- right in the heart of the Midwest," said climatologist Mark Svoboda with the Nebraska-based National Drought Mitigation Center.

It's all a huge comedown for farmers who had expected a record year when they sowed 96.4 million acres in corn, the most since 1937. The USDA initially predicted national average corn yields of 166 bushels per acre this year. The agency has revised that projection down to 146, with more cuts possible.

The lower projection is still an improvement over the average yields of around 129 bushels a decade ago. But already tight supplies and fears that the drought will get worse have been pushing up grain prices, which are likely to translate into higher food prices.

In Minnesota, for the week ending July 15, the USDA said, 67 percent of the corn crop was rated good or excellent, though that's down from 77 percent a week ago.

Monday's drought report was based on data going back to 1895 called the Palmer Drought Index. It feeds into the widely watched and more detailed U.S. Drought Monitor, which reported last week that 61 percent of the continental United States was in a moderate to exceptional drought. However, the weekly Drought Monitor goes back only 12 years, so climatologists use the Palmer Drought Index for comparing droughts before 2000.

Climatologists have labeled this year's dry spell a "flash drought" because it developed in a matter of months, not over multiple seasons or years.

The current drought is similar to the droughts of the 1950s, which weren't as intense as those of the 1930s, said Jake Crouch, a climatologist with the National Climatic Data Center. And farming has changed a lot since the Dust Bowl era. Better soil conservation has reduced erosion, and modern hybrids are much more resistant to drought.

But Crouch said it's important to understand that this drought is still unfolding, and time will tell "how big a drought it ends up being."

Staff writers Bill McAuliffe and Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.

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