More Than Wheat at Stake As Effects of US Dry Spell Spread

IF it were just wheat withering in his fields, Vernon Deines might not worry so much. ``I think the wheat is done for,'' says the Kansas farmer. But ``we don't know what to do with our cattle. That is where we are really hurting.''

Mr. Deines has four months of hay and less than a week of silage left to feed his herd. So if it doesn't rain this summer, he will either have to buy expensive feed or sell his cattle at a loss.

The dry spell of 1989 is less extensive and based on a different weather pattern than last year's. But like last year, its impact is growing larger.

``It's spreading,'' says Gail Martell, agricultural meteorologist with Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., a Wall Street brokerage. Although centered on Kansas, the dryness now stretches to eastern Nebraska, much of Iowa, northern Missouri, and even into western and central portions of Illinois, she says.

More than wheat is threatened. The drought could hurt corn and soybeans as well as the livestock industry, rural businesses as well as farmers.

``If farmers come in, either because it rained or they have the money to, then we'll do real well,'' says John Norris, co-owner of a new restaurant in Greenfield, Iowa. ``If they don't ... then it will hurt us substantially.''

The most visible destruction so far has been Kansas's winter wheat crop. An estimated 83 percent of the state's crop is in poor to very poor condition, according to a Kansas agricultural statistics report late last week. When wheat experts toured the state last week, they predicted only 208 million bushels of winter wheat would be harvested - less than half the normal harvest. Wheat prices have already risen substantially.

``There's no way that this will fill out,'' says Deines, digging his thumbnails into a stunted green stalk and pulling out a scraggly, light-green head of wheat. Instead of standing 18 inches tall, his wheat is only about four inches. Bare spots of earth are visible where there should only be green wheat. Deines has already plowed under 700 of the 1,000 acres of wheat he planted last fall. And even heavy rain won't save the remaining 300 acres.

Fortunately, Deines has crop insurance, which should allow him to avoid a total financial loss on the wheat. No such guarantees exist for his beef cows. Normally, Deines would have moved his cows out to pasture by now, but the grass and alfalfa are stunted. And most of the ponds on the Deines farm have dried up.

``I can haul water, but if there's no grass, there's not much use in taking the cattle to grass,'' he says. An estimated 81 percent of the state's ranges and pastures are rated short by the Kansas agricultural service.

All these factors have left the grain and cattle markets uncertain.

``I think it's going to be real volatile,'' says Ms. Martell of Shearson Lehman Hutton.

``There is a lot of uncertainty,'' adds Topper Thorpe, general manager of Cattle-Fax, a marketing information service based in Denver.

Livestock analysts, for example, are not sure whether the six-year decline in the cow herd is over or not. Government figures show both trends - a stabilization of the herd but also a record number of cattle being placed in feedlots to be fattened and then slaughtered.

``Where the cows are, the moisture hasn't been,'' says Chuck Levitt, senior livestock analyst at Shearson Lehman Hutton. And though ranchers last year spent extra money to hold onto their herd and try to rebuild, this second year of dry weather is beginning to force them to reduce their herds.

If this summer gets as dry as last year, ``the shortage of beef in the US could become very severe in the 1990s,'' Mr. Levitt says.

The weather patterns don't suggest the situation will get that drastic, according to agricultural meteorologists. Last year, hot, dry weather affected virtually all of the corn belt, Martell says. This year, about a third of the corn-growing Midwest has been affected so far.

Historically, there have been back-to-back droughts, she adds, although only once, in 1913 and 1914, has she found back-to-back periods where the dryness was accompanied by searing heat. That uncommon occurrence suggests that a return of last year's heat and dryness is unlikely, she adds. The corn crop looks to be in more trouble than the soybean crop, which can recover well if rains come in August.

``Overall, it doesn't look like last year,'' says Ed Olenic, a meteorologist at the Climate Analysis Center of the National Weather Service. ``The timing is different. The pattern is different.''

Although the Weather Service's latest 30-day and 90-day forecasts call for below-normal rainfall in the northern and central plains, spring weather can change in a hurry, Mr. Olenic says. Moreover, these areas tend to get the most rainfall during the summer months.

So, if rains are timely in the next few months, then the crops should be able to make it and the subsoil moisture becomes less crucial, these meteorologists say. If the rains don't come, then parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa could suffer through a drought more severe than the one in 1988.

``Potentially, things could be worse than last year,'' says Donivan Gordon, supervisor of the water resources section of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Some Iowa communities have already taken water-conservation steps and many others are discussing them.

The federal government has stepped in with limited help, allowing farmers to graze their cattle on idled land, for example, which would be illegal under normal circumstances.

But pressure is building to fully extend the emergency drought aid of 1988 to farmers stressed by drought this year. US Rep. Dan Glickman (D) of Kansas plans this week to introduce a bill that would do that for farmers who have lost 35 percent of their wheat or other crops - farmers like Vernon Deines.

``Even in the '50s and the '80s, we never did run out of water in our ponds,'' he says. But this year, three out of the four ponds on one field hold only dried, cracked earth.

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