Waupaca County is among 42 counties where Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency Monday. July 9.
The declaration allows the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to expedite permits for farmers to temporarily draw water from streams or lakes for irrigation.
Counties in southern Wisconsin have been the hardest hit by relentless heat and little rain.
This summer’s weather has most impacted the southwest corner of Waupaca County.
“I think it’s the high temperatures more than the lack of precipitation that may be the biggest challenge to farmers,” according to Greg Blonde, agricultural agent for the University of Wisconsin Extension in Waupaca County.
Blonde noted that early last week, the east side of Waupaca County received about one-half inch of rain near Manawa and more than two inches in the Bear Creek and Sugar Bush areas.
“That covers a good portion of the cropland in our county,” Blonde said, pointing to a map that shows cultivated acreage throughout Waupaca County.
Farmers own and manage almost half of all acres in Waupaca County. More than 234,000 acres in the county are cropland, pasture, tree farms and wetlands on agricultural enterprise land.
Corn and heat
Blonde said corn plants tend to shut down when the temperature reaches 86 degrees over an extended period.
“The corn just stops growing, the leaf starts curling, and it can’t catch sunlight or convert sugar in the cells into carbohydrates,” Blonde said. “The field looks brown but it isn’t necessarily lost. The corn goes into a sleep mode similar to the dormancy that plants experience in the winter.”
Blonde said the corn may recover if there is rainfall soon. However, most of the current corn crop is nearing an eight-day period when it reproduces and pollen is released and caught by silk in the air.
“Drought stress and heat stress during this period will have the greatest impact on the corn,” he said.
Blonde said corn is usually planted in late April to early May and begins tasseling for reproduction in mid to late July, depending on weather and soil conditions and the type of hybrid.
From the time of pollination, corn takes 90 to 110 days to reach relative maturity. Corn harvesting begins in September and ends in October.
“Heat and dryness are not as bad in the early stages of corn’s development,” Blonde said. “If we have more rain, the corn can turn around in a hurry.”
He said the worst hit areas of Waupaca County have been in the southwest, where the soil is sandier and less likely to retain moisture.
“That’s where the plants have curled up leaves and look like pineapples,” Blonde said.
He added that several farms in the southwest part of the county have irrigation systems that may help farmers get through this dry spell.
There are approximately 60,000 acres of corn growing in Waupaca County. Blonde said an average of 130 bushels of corn is harvested per acre for a total harvest of 7.8 million bushels.
He estimated the total economic value of the county’s corn crop at more than $50 million.
Most of that crop is raised to be fed to the more than 25,000 dairy cattle in Waupaca County.
The weather conditions will affect not only corn production, but the dairy farms that rely on the corn as feed.
“This heat and lack of precipitation shows up on dairy farms as reduced feed inventories, reduced milk production and lower fertility rates,” Blonde said. “After this week, my guess is that we’ll see a pretty significant hit on dairy production.”
Agriculture represents the second largest sector of Waupaca County’s economy, generating nearly $872 million, about 24 percent of the county’s total business sales, according to data from Steven C. Deller, professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
On-farm milk production generates $116.4 million in business sales, while processing milk into dairy products accounts for another $630 million.
Waupaca County’s 1,330 farms are directly or indirectly responsible for an estimated 4,427 jobs. These jobs include farm owners and farm workers, veterinarians, food processing employees, those who sell or repair farm equipment, feed, seed and fertilizer, ag consultants and barn builders.
“It will take a while before we can really understand these impacts,” Blonde said.
He said the widespread drought conditions also led to more acres being planted this summer in an effort to compensate for lower yields.
“Sometimes reduction in productivity can be somewhat balanced with improved market prices,” Blonde said.
Reiterating that the weather could change in time for this year’s local corn crop, Blonde said, “There’s still good reason to be optimistic.”