Corn pix near Kennard

A corn field pictured along CR 26 Tuesday. The lack of rainfall over the area has caused crops and other plants to start browning early.

Washington County is in the D2 or severe drought category for the spring and summer.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the D2 category begins to affect crops, which takes a toll on many famers in the area.

Phil Kempcke, owner and founder of Kempcke Seeds just north of Blair on U.S. Highway 75, said rainfall is below average for 2020, which hadn't happened in eight years.

Kempcke grows crops including soybeans and corn, and said as of September, he has had around 13 inches of rain this year, which puts him at 10 to 12 inches below normal.

"We're coming off of four years of above normal precipitation," he said. "With that being said, going into spring this year, we had what we call a full soil profile, in other words, we were about maxed out on groundwater.

"So, that's probably why our crop looks as good as it does today. In some areas, we're probably going to have close to a normal crop, and there are other areas that hurt significantly."

Brett Albright, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Valley, said he is always keeping track of the severity of the drought throughout a good portion of Nebraska.

"This has been developing since the spring, about three months," Albright said. "In spring, we saw average or below average rainfall, and then this summer we've seen below average. This is the fourth driest summer in more than 100 years, and it's a condition that will affect farmers.”

When tracking his crop health, Kempcke uses an app that will show different colors indicating which parts of his crops have high, low or moderate plant health.

For the most part, Kempcke has seen above 70% moderate health, and almost 20% low health.

"But we're also starting to mature, so that's not atypical," he said of the crops heading into fall weather. "I can walk into these fields and get an idea of what it might yield in ears and counting the kernels, and try to determine how big they are. I can do the math and I can kind of arrive at where I'm headed roughly for yields. "

Due to the heavy rainfalls last year, Kempcke said his soil profile at the beginning of the year was full, and the plants had good subsoil and moisture. In April, the growing season, it started to get dry with no significant showers.

"As we went along, spring was a little bit unique — we were used to planting in conditions that were too wet for prior years, and this year, things were a little drier than what we'd like to have seen, Kempcke said. "Some seed was planted in dry dirt and didn't ever come up."

Albright said the NWS will on occasion speak with farmers who are wondering about the rainfall, but there's no direct drought forecasting since it's a longterm situation.

Though there is some irrigation involved, Kempcke said for the most part, the land is pretty dry and there isn't much room for watering plants with center pivots.

Kempcke said another factor that has caused issues in this year's crop is the herbicides used on corn and soybeans, which he said takes a certain amount of rainfall for those to work correctly. Weed control has also been an issue because of the lack of rain.

In July, when corn begins its reproductive phase typically, weather plays a critical role, Kempcke said.

"You don't want it too hot because you don't want to limit the time of day, the amount of time the anthers on tassels have to shred pollen, and also high heat can limit silk growth," he said. "We lucked out, for the most part."

With soybeans, Kempcke said some plants had good pod sets, where on average three beans will sprout, though he did find a few where only two or one developed inside the pods.

One concern Kempcke has is the fact that he has taken every ounce of water out of the soil there was available.

"We always have to look ahead and plan and right now today, if we were to harvest and disc up a field, it would just be powder," he said. "We're going to need precipitation for next year. Hopefully, we'll start to see a change in our weather pattern, and we'll start to get some rain."

Kempcke said overall, he hopes to see some more rainfall to help with fall harvest.

"I don't want to see us get into a rainy pattern during harvest because that really can be frustrating, too," he said. "As I talk to seed customers, they're all looking forward to harvest, but we're not going to grow the biggest crop we had."

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