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A field closer to his home south of Beaver Creek shows kernel loss, but not quite as drastic. At left, a rain gauge found along one of Willers' fields south of Jasper hasn't held rain for quite a while.
A field closer to his home south of Beaver Creek shows kernel loss, but not quite as drastic. At left, a rain gauge found along one of Willers' fields south of Jasper hasn't held rain for quite a while.

Drought devastation

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news Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

BEAVER CREEK -- Jim Willers plucked a soybean plant out of one of his fields south of Jasper Tuesday morning and pointed out the dried buds where green bean pods should have been hanging.

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"It's a nice, big, pretty plant, but there are no beans," he said. "It's a pretty field, but there are no beans in it."

Willers is one of many farmers in southwest Minnesota -- and across the Midwest -- holding out whatever hope is left that Mother Nature will bring some much needed rain to save his thirsty crops.

Up and down the township gravel and county blacktop roads in western Rock County, the view outside Willer's truck windshield shows areas of heat-stressed corn across the road from fields of lush green soybean canopies. Sandier soils make some areas of corn fields look really bad -- the stalks are browning from the ground up and some plants haven't even reached knee-high heights.

Those areas make the rest of the field appear to be in good shape. What is seen from the windshield, however, can be deceiving. Walking into a corn or a soybean field and actually looking at the plants, it is quickly evident they have been stressed by the lack of rain.

Willers said a corn field just down the road from his farm south of Beaver Creek looks about the best. It was fortunate to catch about an inch of rain last weekend; the last time that happened was back on July 5.

The two rain events combined to put his July moisture totals above June. Willers said in that 30-day stretch, he managed to collect just seven-tenths of an inch.

The corn field closest to his farm shows ears that are only about 75 percent filled with kernels. He has another field two miles north of Beaver Creek where more than half of the ear is void of kernels.

Moisture now, while it will help the existing kernels, won't bring those damaged areas back.

"These were pollinated at one time -- they just shrunk back down to feed what it could to survive," Willers said as he rolled his fingers across the cob. On some fields, the "potential is there" for 100 bushels per acre. On others, it will be a lot less.

It's a far cry from the 190- to 200-plus bushel-per-acre yields farmers typically expect. Still, as any farmer knows, Willers said it could be worse.

"It's the worst since 1988 for us. It's not as bad as '74, '75 and '76. The biggest difference there is probably the hybrids that we have today," he said. "If we had the hybrids we had back in the '70s, this would be gone. There were a lot of two-, three-, four-, five-bushel yields (back then)."

As for the soybean fields, with a little more rain Willers is hopeful for 40 bushels per acre -- down from what would otherwise yield 60 bushels -- on his fields near Beaver Creek; but on that plot south of Jasper, who knows, he said.

At this point, he offered a guess that he'll get about one-third of a crop there.

"There's a lot of unknowns," Willers said. "There's time yet that they'll flower set and bloom. It's going to take more water than what we've had.

"There's potential here, if it would rain," he added. "That corn that's gone is gone. The beans at least have potential yet. If we catch some rain this weekend like they forecast, I think they would be fair beans."

The National Weather Service forecasts a 20 percent chance of showers tonight and Thursday, moving to a 60 percent chance of storms by Friday night for southwest Minnesota.

Liz Stahl, University of Minnesota Extension crops specialist, said despite the severity of the drought in areas of southwest Minnesota, it doesn't look nearly as bad as Corn Belt states like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. She drove through there in mid-July and saw fields "burning up."

"We had enough moisture to get through pollination fairly well," she said. Whatever moisture there has disappeared in areas missing out on the recent spotty rain showers.

"There is a spot in Jackson County that is about normal, but the rest of the area is a good four to eight inches below normal (for rainfall) in the last 60 days," Stahl said.

After spending Tuesday morning at a corn rootworm field event near Hills, Stahl said the lack of rain isn't the only thing hampering the region's crops. The corn rootworm problem is compounding crops already showing signs of yield loss.

"We are seeing some fields where we just aren't getting the control we'd expect to see with corn rootworm hybrids," she said.

In soybeans, Stahl said while there are a few fields that have reached threshold for treatment of soybean aphids, the main concern now is for spider mites.

"They do like the hot temperatures ... and that speeds reproduction," Stahl said. "They can cause significant yield reductions. You typically deal with them in soybeans, but there are some issues in corn as well."

While the aphid population has been kept down because of the high temperatures, Stahl said the spider mites are congregating on the underside of leaves.

They appear as whitish-yellow spots and start on the lower part of the plant to work their way up. As they move up the plant, the spider mites eat away at the leaves and destroy the photosynthetic area that affects yields.

"Once you start to see that stipling (spots on the leaves) ... that's when you need to get out there and spray," Stahl explained. "Only a couple of insecticides work on spider mites, so you need to be careful in selection. Some treatments for aphids may flare up spider mites."

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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