Leftover corn in a field near Highway 77 and Old Cheney Road after harvest in early October. Credit: Rebecca Heckel
Leftover corn in a field near Highway 77 and Old Cheney Road after harvest in early October. Credit: Rebecca Heckel

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 76% of Nebraska is in severe drought, and has been for several months.

Much of the southeastern region in Nebraska is among those areas in severe drought, having not had significant rainfall during the summer growing season. The region saw approximately half of the normal amount of rainfall since the beginning of the year through late October. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, this lack of moisture is having devastating impacts on crop yield.

“We have some non-irrigated areas that the yields won’t be there,” said farmer and Nebraska Corn Board member Brandon Hunnicutt, who has farmed 23,000 acres of corn, popcorn and soybeans in Hamilton County for 23 years. “We have some areas of the state where yields are really, really down from where they should be.”

Gro Intelligence is estimating Nebraska will have a corn yield of 158 bushels per acre (bpa) this year, which is significantly less than the USDA’s 5-year average, 186 bpa.

There are several different factors that influence the low yield, one of them being stunted corn. Hunnicutt explains that if there’s not enough moisture, the crops won’t grow.

“You’re just dealing with a plant that in theory becomes a weed,” Hunnicutt said. “It’s just out there, sucking up whatever nutrients that it can without being able to produce anything.”

Unfortunately, in mid-June, one of the only storms the region did see produced large hail that left massive scars in farmland, which created another problem for some farmers.

“For me it was a double-edged sword this year because of the I got hit by a really bad hailstorm on June 14, and then was terribly dry after that,” said farmer Galen Roebke. “So it was the combination of the two for me, but yeah, the drought especially has been bad.”

Roebke’s crop yield is down more than 50% from what it was in 2021. He’s grown corn, soybeans and alfalfa in Seward County on a 725-acre farm for more than 30 years.

“It just continued to get worse and worse,” said Roebke. “Add that all up together and we are where we are, so things are going to have to change big time for next year. Or next year could be worse.”

According to both Hunnicutt and Roebke, farmers are having to start their harvest weeks earlier than previous years, as the corn is drying out significantly earlier due to the lack of moisture in the ground.

“The crops are striking down a whole lot quicker. You lose yield, you lose kernel size. Guys are harvesting corn that is a lot drier than they would expect, especially on corn, at this time,” said Hunnicutt.

Hunnicutt believes farmers expect an average of a 10% loss in yield because of the drought, but he assures consumers won’t be seeing the direct impact. Farmers, however, will need to do some extra legwork to get what they need, from grain for cattle feed to harvesting itself.

When it comes to harvesting the stunted corn, equipment specialist for Nebraska Extension Luan Oliviera said it can be a bit more difficult to get harvesters at the right height to maximize yield. His biggest advice for farmers is to “know your field.”

Despite all this, Roebke wants to remind the community that farmers are used to tough seasons.

“I think farmers are resilient people, and they realize the risks going into it,” Roebke said. “So you got to take the good with the bad and, you know, just play the hand you’re dealt and go on.”