Update on the Drought and Corn Yields

The U.S. drought that began in 2011 and spread to a much wider area in 2012 continues. The latest U.S. Drought Monitor shows that the majority of the continental U.S. is affected. The intensity of the drought is rated on a five-step scale:

D0 Abnormally Dry
D1 Drought – Moderate
D2 Drought – Severe
D3 Drought – Extreme
D4 Drought – Exceptional

The first level on the scale is “Abnormally Dry”, meaning that the land is not quite under a drought, hence the D-zero designation. Then the four categories of drought increase from Moderate all the way up to Exceptional.

The amount of U.S. agricultural land area currently affected by some type of drought — from D1 to D4 — is astounding. But so too is the vast area rated at the level from Extreme to Exceptional. When you need to use a term greater than “Severe”, and even greater than “Extreme” to describe a drought, it is a serious problem.

In summer 2011, Texas and Oklahoma were under a D4 exceptional drought, but much of the Midwest to the north of Oklahoma was unaffected. The years 2009 and 2010 were relatively drought-free, although the 2011 to 2012 drought seems to have begun in the winter of 2010/2011. See the chart below comparing late November of 2012, from the latest Drought Monitor report, to late November of 2009. The difference is astounding:

Few people realize how severe the 2012 drought has been.

Already, corn yields for 2012 are greatly reduced compared to 2009.
2009 yields: 13,091.862 million bushels of corn
2012 yields: 10,725.191 million bushels of corn
The difference is a decrease of 2.366 billion bushels of corn (down 18%). A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, so that makes 132.496 billion pounds of corn lost to the drought, or about 66 million tons (2000 lbs/ton). Per acre yields have also fallen dramatically, from 164.7 bushels/acre in 2009 to 122.3 bushels/acre in 2012. And in the same space of time, the ‘weighted-average’ farm price for a bushel of corn has risen from $3.55 to $7.60 per bushel (USDA ERS data)

About 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used to make fuel ethanol, and about another 40% is used for livestock feed. It is unclear what effect the sharp increase in the price of corn will have on fuel ethanol, and potentially on gas prices at the pump. But the increased cost of livestock feed is anticipated to effect food prices.

What happens is simple. Ranchers cannot afford to feed their entire herd, because about 95% of feed grain production in the U.S. is corn (USDA ERS: Corn). So ranchers sell off their cattle, temporarily increasing the meat supply. But within a few months, the reduced size of the herds will mean a shorter supply and higher prices. The same process could well occur with poultry and lamb and possibly farmed fish. Dairy prices are also likely to rise sharply, for much the same reasons. By sometime in 2013, we should see higher prices across the board for meat, poultry, fish, and dairy.

The point that I would like to emphasize, though, is that the drought is not yet over. And if it continues throughout much of 2013, the effects on the food economy will be substantial, much greater than anyone now realizes.

– Thoreau

3 Responses to Update on the Drought and Corn Yields

  1. The late sprring early summer was drier then normal but after that it did indeed rain/ Drought??? Well I suppose it was “drought” but wouldn’t you think a drought affecting all the states this one did would do more then reduce corn crop by 18%? When I think of a “drought” I’m thinking 50% crop reduction is good news but to only lose 18% isn’t all that bad. So was it a “drought” or simply that in late spring when the corn is just planted and trying to grow rain didn’t come as expected? Maybe “drought” is not the right word but the right word wouldn’t have made such good headlines.

  2. I found Thoreau’s post regarding corn/maize.

    I am promoting maize as being possibly the only cereal that is designed to be sown, cultivated, harvested, and shelled (rather than threshed I suppose) totally by manual labor. All other cereals require something in the way of tools to grow and process. The Amerinds who developed maize had minimal tools and no draught animals.

    The QPM corn that Thoreau mentioned has something like 100% more of lysine and tryptophan; it has roughly 90% the protein utilization potential of milk. It’s a natural mutation though it did take some significant breeding work to fix some problems with it. But it is non-GMO contrary to popular assumptions. Totally safe and natural.

    There are several reasons he could not find any in the USA. Virtually all varieties actually in production are tropical varieties adapted to short days. If you tried to grow them in a temperate climate, they won’t bloom until it’s too late to set a crop. There are some experimental lines that have been adapted to longer days but they are not available commercially and probably never will be. My business partner has some protein balanced corns–probably the opaque-2 gene–and we’re arranging to grow them out. Wish us luck.

    It’s a bit late in the game to distribute corns that are suitable as a staple crop. Ironically, the country that grows the most corn–the USA–uses very little of it as a human staple. I do have a few but I’m in one of the worst parts of the country to grow corn in. :( I’ve given up growing it on a large scale and will confine my activities next year to my back yard. I will probably start it under a polytunnel so I can start it early enough to get it to dry down. Seattle has something like 2300 growing-degree-days on a 50F base; typical corns need about 2700.

    Kind regards,

    Rob (posted from e-mail)

  3. I suggest those in corn-growing regions impacted by drought who want to grow grain might try Sorghum. For grain, look specifically for a “white” or “yellow endosperm” type; some types are only for attracting game birds or for making beer in countries too hot and humid for barley.

    Sorghum is significantly more heat and drought-resistant than corn. It has a Millet-like spray at the top of a plant that looks otherwise superficially like corn. The grain is mild-flavored and will work in many types of pastries and quick-breads. Sorghum flour is in a lot of gluten-free mixes. I’ve made cookies, pancakes, and muffins with it. Some people harvest the grain off syrup types and make themselves pancakes and syrup both.

    You can feed most types of sorghum grain to chickens, but beware of feeding them bird-resistant types that are slightly toxic raw. Because bird predation is a potential problem with Sorghum I’ll be releasing a bird-resistant type in a few years. The greens are also toxic once injured, but if you know what you are doing you can use it as silage.

    The amaranth you mentioned offline has some drought resistance too. It does C4 carbon fixation which means it uses less water than most crops, and it has mechanisms to recover from drought fairly quickly once water is available again. I’d suggest trying both on a small scale and seeing how they perform, as insurance against total corn crop failure.

    Quinoa is amazingly drought-tolerant, but only for cool climates with a long growing season.

    Good luck to those in drought areas. We’ve got our own misery as the same la NiƱa that brings drought to some areas brings cold and too much rain here!