OMAHA (DTN) -- As winds increase today to gusts as high as 35 to 45 miles per hour in some parts of the Northern and Central Plains as well as areas of the Western Corn Belt, many farmers will be uneasy for several reasons.
At the very least, the winds will lodge any corn crops in drought areas that are still standing with their brittle stalks; this will add to the harvesting headache for farmers.
The moderate to strong winds are "not conducive for field work today," said Senior Agricultural Meteorologist Joel Burgio this morning. "The hot, dry weather is drying the topsoil."
USDA reported in its weekly crop progress report yesterday that while the harvesting pace is ahead of normal, there is still a lot of crop out there. Nationally, about 15% of the corn crop is harvested, and 4% of soybeans as of Sept. 9; 52% of the corn is very poor to poor. In the report, the USDA encouraged farmers to stay alert for harvest fires, because some have already been reported in places such as Nebraska.
At their worst, today's winds provide potential for dangerous wild fires.
If the farmers wanted to deal with their corn before predicted rains begin to move into the region starting tomorrow, dropping an inch or more in places in the next couple of days, they might think twice. Today can be dangerous in the fields. The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings to say the situation is critical because of "extreme fire danger" -- a stray spark could set off a wildfire that could rapidly spread.
A lot of fields have become more vulnerable with each passing day. The above-normal temperatures and well-below-normal precipitation have created the worst drought in a half century, and ready fuel for any hungry wild fire. Today is continuing that trend. Temperatures are in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit in the Northern Plains, and reaching into 80s and 90s in the Central and Southern Plains, as well as some areas of the western Midwest that missed any relief from Tropical Storm Isaac recently. This follows some locations reaching triple-digits Monday.
Meanwhile, at noon today, relative humidity levels were low, below 40% and in some place below 30%; they are expected to be in the upper teens and lower 20s this afternoon. The topsoil continues to lose its moisture, especially with the wind. This is a big concern, especially in places like Kansas and South Dakota where topsoil moisture supplies is rated 60% or more as very short.
Overlap the areas that have warnings today about fire danger with the Sept. 4 U.S. Drought Monitor map (bit.ly/rnoE0A) and the situation looks even more grim. Nebraska and Kansas are Ground Zero for exceptional and extreme drought in this country. This isn't a surprise for farmers who walk through their rows of curled up, dead corn leaves and see cracks in the ground a couple inches wide and several inches deep. Rural fire departments also know this drought firsthand: in Nebraska, they have already been stretched for resources beyond their budgets to cover wildfires (bit.ly/PnrWd1).
Anyone raised on a farm is taught to always be aware of fire in the fields. Family members and workers are taught to avoid driving vehicles into the fields, especially over harvested corn stalks, wheat stubble or pastures.
But even with the most care, fires can still break out and quickly damage machinery, bins and crop land.
About a month ago, DTN Special Correspondent Elizabeth Williams wrote a story where producers were being reminded to get field grain fire insurance policies from private insurance companies prior to the deadline of August 15. Williams reported that there were 11 harvest fires in 2011 in Nebraska, and nine northwest Iowa counties had an average of almost seven combine fires per county in the same year.
She added that a study by South Dakota State University ag engineers "found that although air temperatures were high and relative humidity was low during much of the early harvest, most fires occurred on days when wind speeds averaged 15 miles per hour and occasional gusts of 25 to 30 mph."
With this year being drier, wind speeds higher today than those levels, low relative humidity values, and farmers anxious to get their crops harvested, this might be one of the most vulnerable times farms have faced.
Elaine Shein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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