El Niño delayed: Will crops survive? The stubborn drought dominating the nation’s midsection is refusing to ease, cloaking the nation’s top corn and soybean producing states with yet another triple-digit heat wave with no sign of moisture in sight. 

As an added headache, climate indicators for El Niño -- the light at the end of this tunnel of drought -- have eased over the past few weeks. El Niño is more likely to push drought conditions to the West, away from the Corn Belt, allowing weak storm fronts into the Midwest grain-growing region.

While meteorologists still expect the weather pattern to develop, they don’t anticipate it to form until later this year. 

Until cooler weather or a wetter pattern emerges, the nation will continue to broil.

In the latest Drought Monitor, Indiana, Arkansas and Kansas are among the many states shaded in red and maroon, indicating the most severe levels of drought measured. As a region, more than half of the Midwest is now in severe to exceptional drought.

"Another week of hot and dry weather continued the deterioration of crop conditions in America's breadbasket," Richard Heim of the National Climatic Data Center wrote in this week’s Drought Monitor.

Current crop conditions, reported on Monday in the USDA’s weekly Crop Progress Report, show just how much producers are struggling against the destructive and frustrating weather pattern that has now made the history books as the worst drought since 1956.

El Niño delayed: Will crops survive? Currently 1,207 counties across 29 states have been declared disaster areas, including the entire state of Missouri. This week, the USDA added 39 counties to the list because of the drought and excessive heat.

The graphic at right looks at the percentage of corn rated in poor to very condition, as noted in the Crop Progress Report. Click on the image for an animated look at the conditions, which have quickly deteriorated in just nine weeks. 

Looking back at the past few weeks of the report, 6 percent of Kentucky’s corn was rated in poor to very poor condition near the end of May, but by mid-July conditions have rapidly declined to 77 percent.

Missouri and Indiana also aren’t far behind.

Nationally, corn conditions have dropped by 35 percentage points during that period:


Corn in poor to very poor condition

May 21, 2012


May 29, 2012


June 4, 2012


June 11, 2012


June 18, 2012


June 25, 2012


July 2, 2012


July 9, 2012


July 16, 2012


Producers shouldn’t expect the heat to reside anytime soon. On Thursday the Commodity Weather Group (CWG) predicted the heat would last longer next week than had earlier been forecast.

"The most concern is in west central Indiana, much of Illinois, far northern Missouri, most of Iowa, southwest Minnesota, southern South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas," CWG meteorologist Joel Widenor told Reuters.

Despite the impact of the weather pattern, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that the worsening Midwest drought will results in sharply higher crop prices. Even so, Vilsack doesn’t expect the drought to be as severe as the 1988 weather disaster, which cost U.S. agriculture $78 billion.

In its weekly U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook forecast, NOAA forecasts no improvement and even further developing of drought conditions across the Midwest, with improvements noted in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and southern California. In the breadbasket of the country, however, the conditions may persist through the end of October.

The USDA has already reduced its estimated yields for both corn and soybeans in a season that began as a potentially record corn crop as farmers planted the biggest area since 1937. A Reuters poll of 13 analysts have pegged the average estimated corn yield of 137.2 bushels per acre, down 6 percent from the USDA’s forecast of 146 bushels. The USDA dropped its yield estimate by an unprecedented 20 bushels per acre in its report on July 11.

Corn production was pegged at 12.077 billion bushels, the smallest in 5 years, down 6.9 percent from USDA's outlook. "We're losing more yield with the additional stress now in the northern areas which up until now had been pretty good," Shawn McCambridge, analyst for Jefferies Bache told Reuters.

Drought conditions pushed the September corn contract to an all-time high of $8 per bushel during the overnight session, Doane Agricultural Services reported on Thursday afternoon.  Last week analysts mentioned the possibly of $10 per bushel corn at a panel discussion at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).  One analyst, AgResource Company President Dan Basse, noted that he had never seen crop losses this large occur in such a short amount of time. Read more here.