On Christmas Eve, many local weather broadcasts show the latest radar images with a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer moving across the sky. Santa is on his way!
This summer, many adults have been anxiously watching radar images too. Not for Santa, but for rain — or anything that might look like it would produce rain. One of the marvels of modern technology is the ability to track storms on your smartphone. (Well, at least an up-to-date smartphone. While I have graduated from the flip-top phone, my smartphone isn’t “smart” enough to run the radar images. My wife’s phone is, however, and together we peer into the screen — zooming in, zooming out, searching for any weather pattern heading our way.)
It seemed there were multiple occasions where a promising cell, fat with yellow, oranges and reds would be strolling across Nebraska. One could almost feel the warm rain falling down on Lincoln and Omaha and anticipating the wet relief the summer storm would bring.
Suddenly the cell takes a hard right through northern Missouri, Illinois and Indiana — leaving us with a “what happened?” look on our faces and a feeling of betrayal. So close and so far away.
Other times, Mother Nature seemed to be extra cruel. We would watch the oncoming red and orange blobs approach. As they drew nearer, the reds turned to orange which turned to yellow which turned to green … only to disappear entirely over Minnesota.
The rainbow-colored blotches which did manage to reach us were small, isolated storms which would come and go like “whack a mole” targets on the weather map. A Minneapolis meteorologist calls these “popcorn” showers. Impossible to predict, these come-and-go cells were frequent (well, maybe not that frequent) visitors to the summer of 2021. The result of this weather activity is normal-looking fields in one section and withered, curled-up leaves in the next.
Back in the day, church bazaars and town celebrations would have events where a section of grass would be marked off in a grid. Each square would have a number and patrons would buy numbers. An animal (usually a cow or a chicken) would be led onto the grid and if the animal pooped on the square with your number on it, you were a winner!
Substitute poop with rain and you have an idea of what farmers went through this summer. If rain happened to land on your square, you were a winner.
Unfortunately, folks in the northern half of Minnesota didn’t even get a chance to play this summer. Rain eluded much of the area; the heat and scorching winds did not. While crops certainly suffered, it is the livestock farmers who took even a bigger hit. With so many mouths to feed and no greenery, herds were reduced or sold off completely. With crops, each spring brings a new growing season and a chance to regroup. Growing a herd takes more time.
Last week, Minnesota had its first real rain event in about four months. And when you’re growing corn or soybeans with 90-day maturity, four months is eternity.
I expect yields to be all over the spectrum — not only varying from farm to farm, but field to field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will give us the big picture. Because of good seasons in the eastern and southern Corn Belt, USDA is estimating high bushel counts for both corn and soybeans. North and South Dakota and Minnesota won’t fare as well. Reports list Iowa as average, but from what I’ve read their situation is hit-and-miss as well.
Experts say rain this late in the growing season will bulk up the weight of the grain, but bushels per acre are pretty much set. We are now in a delicate balancing act of getting rain to replenish this arid summer and having it dry enough to get the crops out. Dick Hagen reported this recent rain activity has already thrown a small wrench into the sugar beet harvest.
There will be other issues to watch as harvest unfolds. Some farmers have already contracted a portion of the 2021 crop and yields may come up short. Also, smaller yields will allow growers better storage options and they might hang on to this year’s crop a little longer. There are reports of lower-than-average corn and soybean yields in South America; and China rebuilding its swine population. Will China’s South American connections be able to supply the demand? Grain transport is also an issue. Shipping ports are clogged and truck drivers are scarce.
All of this points to a very volatile market where the latest developments will create big swings in price. This will also impact dairy and livestock producers who are tightening belts and watching feed costs. (And speaking of costs, we are hearing almost daily reports of the cost of this or that going up, up, up.)
Farmers I’ve spoken with are maintaining an optimistic attitude — confident they can handle an off year in the fields and come back strong in 2022. Whether or not Mother Nature poops in our square is anyone’s guess.
Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.