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Heat wave, drought hit US farmers hard

As America wilts from triple-digit temperatures this week, farmers and ranchers in the Midwest and West have been hit especially hard. They're watching the combination of heat and, in many places, drought, wither plants, stress livestock, and leave grazing land barren.

"The corn crop is burning up – it's just dying," says Harvey Heier, a corn and wheat farmer in Grainfield, Kan. "It's pollinating time and tasseling time, and in many cases there's not enough moisture in the stalk to produce a kernel."

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The wheat is suffering even more: He estimates he'll get about 20 percent of what he might produce in a normal year.

So far, the heat has had far more impact on local producers than on national grain or livestock prices. And relief is in sight for much of the country, at least from the heat. Temperatures should start cooling down Thursday, the National Weather Service says.

Rain is another story.

Part of the challenge for farmers is that the abnormal weather started long before the current heat wave. The first half of 2006 was America's warmest since records started being kept in 1895. And much of the Plains and West has been dry far longer than the last six months.

"The dryness across the Plains and western Midwest has been an issue for months now – it's not as if they just got dry lately," says Jon Davis, chief meteorologist with Chesapeake Weather Services in Chicago, which provides climate data to agribusiness.

Plains states hardest hit

The biggest impact has been across the Plains, Mr. Davis says, particularly on the spring wheat crop. And the drought is unusual for the wide swath that it's cut.

As a result, wheat prices are up substantially from levels this past winter. Corn prices are up, too, although less dramatically.

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For Mr. Heier, like many farmers, the effects of the current heat wave are exaggerated because they come on top of a dry winter and dry summer the year before.

"There's no moisture in the soil at all," he says. Instead of the typical 15 inches of rain in his area of northwest Kansas, he's gotten six inches so far this year.

"The real critical issue is how long we wait for the next rain," says Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association. "It's safe to say that after a week like this ... there's probably no safe area that isn't irrigated."

Livestock producers are feeling the effects, too.

"They're starting to have to feed their cattle on pasture,' says John Nelson, county director of the federal Farm Service Agency in Pennington County, Minn. "And a lot of the water holes are starting to dry up. One guy went down 20 feet in his hole before he hit water."

Mr. Nelson's county, in the northwest corner of the state, has received 0.2 inches of rain in July and just 0.75 inches in June. He has requested federal emergency aid and permission to use Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for haying and grazing.

Disaster aid for some counties

While Nelson's request is still pending, the US Department of Agriculture has already announced measures to help other parts of the country. It's given natural disaster designation to dozens of counties in Colorado and Nebraska, as well as a few in neighboring states. The designation makes farmers in those areas eligible for low-interest emergency loans. And the USDA has expanded the areas eligible for emergency CRP grazing and haying to include most of the plains.

"The CRP land has been out of production so long that the forage is taller than other areas," says Rick Lopez, the Farm Service Agency's state director for New Mexico. "So [ranchers] don't have to sell their cows or livestock or give supplemental feed. And it reduces the forage if it's too tall, so fires don't start."

States like New Mexico and Oklahoma are also using the agency's Emergency Conservation Program to help drought-stricken ranchers.

The program provides loans to help repair fences and structures damaged by fires, and helps cattlemen get water to their livestock by helping to drill wells, lay pipelines, or clear silt from ponds.

"What we've seen this year is that there has been some forced movement – ranchers forced to relocate cattle or sell early this year – but no real market impact yet," says Mike Miller, research director for Cattle-Fax, a forecasting firm for the beef industry in Denver. "Right now the challenge is just to get through the summer with the limited feed resources they have."

Farmers, meanwhile, can do little other than watch their crop and hope.

"You just keep your fingers crossed," says Heier, who also keeps about 80 head of cattle and has started feeding them hay bales. "You can't do a rain dance. I've tried that."