Dry '89 May Still Yield Fair Harvest

More rain needed for normal crop growth, but main concern now is damage from cold snap. DROUGHT UPDATE

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS the Midwest swings full tilt into harvest season, concerns about the drought of 1989 have faded. Farmers are taking advantage of several days of dry, warm weather to bring in their corn crop and, in places, soybeans. It is too early to make a total assessment, but preliminary indications are the harvest of 1989 will be fair, though not great.

``We had a so-so crop,'' says Peter Leavitt, a meteorologist with Weather Services Corporation in Bedford, Mass. ``That's neither a hit or a miss.''

In some parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota, farmers are finding that yields are a little better than expected, says Jon Davis, an agricultural meteorologist with Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc. in Chicago. ``The harvest across the Midwest is basically going along on schedule.''

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On Friday, United States Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter said feed-grain stocks would be adequate this year and that current acreage-idling requirements would be continued for next year's corn, sorghum, and barley crops. The government forces farmers to idle a portion of their acreage to avoid grain surpluses. The exception is wheat, where reserves are so low that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this month lifted acreage-idling restrictions for next year.

The biggest immediate concern is potential damage from a wave of cold air that swept through portions of the Midwest just more than a week ago. Farmers in Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana saw frost or freezing temperatures. The threat of damage is greater this year because cool, damp weather has delayed crop maturity in places.

When the frost hit parts of northern Indiana, for example, only 46 percent of the corn crop had matured - far behind the 78 percent maturity rate recorded this time last year, says Lee Brown, deputy state statistician for Indiana. The corn crop was furthest behind in the parts of the state where the frost hit. Eighty percent of the crop in northeast Indiana had not yet matured.

The soybean crop may have suffered damage as well, according to Purdue University agronomists, although it is too early to assess its extent. Many wheat farmers and cattle ranchers, meanwhile, are looking at the moisture situation for the winter.

``This dry weather didn't help us out here,'' says Skee Rasmussen, a rancher in southwest South Dakota. His land was actually drier this year than last. ``Our winter range didn't grow back.''

Poor winter ranges pose a dilemma for ranchers. Either they must buy extra feed at high prices to maintain their herd over the winter or sell off a portion of it. Statewide, 43 percent of the pasture and range land was rated poor or very poor a week ago, according to Gary Kraull, an agricultural statistician with the USDA in Sioux Falls, S.D. That is little changed from July.

The drought is probably not over, meteorologists say. But in Nebraska, one of the driest states this summer, the situation is getting better. ``We haven't had enough rain to wipe out our deficits. But it's headed in the right direction,'' says Jack Aschwege, a Nebraska state statistician. A week ago, subsoil moisture was still rated short in 77 percent of the state. But that was down from more than 90 percent earlier in the summer, he says.

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