Published September 21st, 2022 at 6:00 AM
HAYS, KANSAS — This dry, hot summer has claimed its share of victims in Marc Ramsey’s cornfields.
Fewer than seven inches of rain have fallen this year in the area he farms between Dighton and Scott City — nearly one foot below the historical average.
“This is a year unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Ramsey said. “There are lots of times this year I’ve just kind of been at a loss for words.”
Across western Kansas, vast swaths of brown, shriveled corn plants succumbed to the oppressive weather before reaching more than a couple of feet tall. Others grew ears with no kernels or no ears at all. Some of Ramsey’s stalks that stretched to six-feet-tall on July rains withered down to nothing under the late summer sun.
The harvests from these western Kansas cornfields typically fuel billion-dollar industries, such as feeding cattle. But with so little corn to go around this year, those industrial customers are paying a premium to ship grain in from other states just to keep their operations running.
Even during the region’s last big drought a decade ago, Ramsey said, his cornfields still had a decent number of bushels to harvest. This year, he estimates roughly half of the corn he planted won’t yield a single piece of grain.
“Just saying ‘zero yield’ is a painful thing to say,” Ramsey said. “It’s hard not to be disappointed.”
The ripple effects of this year’s poor corn harvest in Kansas will extend well beyond stressing farmers and their livelihoods.
As it becomes more difficult and expensive for cattle feedlots — where animals are fattened up for slaughter — and ethanol plants to get the corn they need, people across Kansas could face higher prices at the grocery store and the gas pump.
Historically, it’s been common to see corn sell in western Kansas for about $4 a bushel.
Dan O’Brien, a Kansas State University agricultural economist based in Colby, said that number has roughly doubled. Prices had already been creeping up since Russia invaded Ukraine — another major corn exporter — and now thanks to the drought-fueled shortage, the price in western Kansas is around $8 per bushel.
“The reason that we built those grain-using industries out here had to do with availability of grain, and now they’re crunched,” O’Brien said. “That sets off a whole series of responses … all of them not good.”
The lack of local corn supply is already pushing Kansas cattle and ethanol companies to bring in grain by rail from places like Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. That’ll inflate corn prices across the Midwest, as local corn-dependent industries in those states suddenly have to compete with more buyers from Kansas.
But it’ll especially hurt Kansas. O’Brien estimates it’ll cost Kansas industries an extra $1 per bushel to ship in corn from other states.
Each steer at a feedlot can eat up to 60 bushels of corn before it gets turned into beef. Kansas feedlots have 2.35 million bovine mouths to feed. So paying an extra dollar to ship in those bushels could add up quickly.
In the short term, O’Brien expects the corn crunch to push meat and ethanol prices up. Beef prices had fallen recently as the drought forced livestock owners to sell off more of their cattle.
But even those higher prices might not be enough to keep corn-dependent companies profitable in western Kansas.
“Is that enough to offset the major increase in the cost of corn?” O’Brien said. “Whether it’s livestock feeders or ethanol plants, they all operate on the margin.”
Feedlots that can’t afford to pay a premium for getting corn from out of state may have to send some animals to slaughter early. And if the drought continues and corn prices remain high for months, it could start to reshape the future of those industries in western Kansas.
There might not be enough corn in western Kansas to keep ethanol plants going here for the long term, O’Brien said, when they could shift operations to the other parts of the Corn Belt where the grain is more readily available. Likewise, some Kansas feedlots may buy less cattle next year because of the rising cost of grain.
Cattle ranching and feeding has the largest economic impact of any agricultural sector in Kansas, contributing roughly $9 billion to the state economy. Ethanol production contributes another $850 million.
“If things get rough enough out in the west,” O’Brien said, “it affects the economic livelihood of everybody in the whole state.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Kansas farmers will harvest 628 million bushels of corn this year. That would be 122 million bushels less than last year.
If you multiply those 122 million missing bushels by the elevated $8-per-bushel prices, it means the state’s agricultural economy is missing out on nearly $1 billion due to the drought.
“If you just look at the typical annual Kansas corn and sorghum production,” Kansas State University agronomist Lucas Haag said, “and then figure the reductions that are going to be due to drought, we’re talking huge sums of money.”
It’s a similar story for sorghum, which is typically considered a more drought-tolerant alternative to corn. More than half of Kansas sorghum is in poor or very poor condition — up from just 15% last year.
While irrigation has helped some farms avoid the worst, Haag said, many fields with center pivot sprinklers will still be abandoned because farmers just couldn’t pump enough water to save them.
“There’s very few areas of the state where we actually have wells that have the capacity to match up for when we’re this short of precipitation,” Haag said.
Water levels in the Ogallala aquifer — the primary water source for most of western Kansas — have been declining for decades since the dawn of irrigated farmland. Estimates show that if pumping trends continue, more than two-thirds of the water under Kansas will be gone within 40 years.
And it’s unclear when farmers in western Kansas will feel some relief.
It’s the first time in decades that a La Niña weather pattern, which fueled droughts across the West and Great Plains in 2022, will show up for a third consecutive winter. And the National Drought Mitigation Center expects drought to persist across Kansas through at least the end of this year.
To make matters worse, a poor crop this season will likely leave fields with less residue — the pieces of plant matter that remain on the ground to help soil store moisture. And with so much of western Kansas already in a deep precipitation deficit, Haag said, it’ll take more than a few rains here and there to get the region back on its feet.
“We can really end up in one of these death spirals,” Haag said, “until we get a really above-average year in terms of precipitation and crop yields that then kind of pulls us back out of it.”
Marc Ramsey has heard from other western Kansas farmers who consider him lucky for having anything to harvest at all. Lots of folks who planted dryland, or nonirrigated, corn this year won’t even bother taking a combine into their fields.
“I guess they get to relax a little bit more in the next couple of weeks,” Ramsey said. “But, you know, that’s the kind of relaxation none of us want.”
Last year was dry too, Ramsey said, but his soil still had enough residual water to produce more than 50 bushels of corn per acre. This year, one of the hottest, driest summers on record has rung that dirt dry — the USDA reports that 86% of the soil across Kansas doesn’t have enough moisture.
And just a couple of weeks from now, Ramsey and farmers across western Kansas will be planting their winter wheat crop into that same dry ground.
“Hopefully we’ve taken care of it, and it’ll give us another shot.”