USDA: Rain likely too late for most of Indiana’s corn

A top federal farm official who spent two days touring drought-stricken Indiana farms said Thursday that most of the state's corn crop is in such bad shape that this week's rainfall likely won't boost yields.

U.S. Agriculture Department Undersecretary Michael Scuse told local farmers who gathered at Kelsay Farms, a seventh-generation family farm south of Indianapolis, that 71 percent of Indiana's corn crop is in poor to very poor condition due to drought and heat stress.

Scuse said rain this week provided little or no help because most of Indiana's cornfields have already passed through the crucial pollination stage when kernels form on each plant's young cobs, a process the drought and heat stunted.

"I don't care how much rain you get. You can't put kernels on that," Scuse said, holding up an ear of corn picked at Kelsay Farms that was virtually devoid of butter-yellow kernels.

Although the corn crop can't be helped, rain in the coming weeks could still help soybean fields, he said.

Scuse's visit to Kelsay Farms, about 15 miles south of Indianapolis, came a few hours after the release of the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report, which showed that almost 54 percent of Indiana is now in extreme drought.

The lingering drought has led the USDA to declare a natural disaster for 80 of Indiana's 92 counties.

Scuse said he visited farms in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio this week partly to get a firsthand look at drought damage and speak to farmers about what the agency might do to help them.

His Indiana visit, which included stops Wednesday in northern Indiana, was also part of the Obama administration's push for Congress to pass a five-year $500 billion farm and nutrition bill awaiting action in the House.

Scuse said the bill contains provisions funding additional disaster programs that could help farmers, particularly dairy and livestock farmers suffering from the nation's worst drought in 25 years.

"We're calling on Congress to act as quickly as possible," he said. "The sooner we get the farm bill passed the better it's going to be for all of our producers."

Kelsay Farms is co-owned by Merrill Kelsay, the father of Joe Kelsay, the director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture who showed Scuse around his family's farm Thursday.

Joe Kelsay said afterward that the amount of damage to crops across the state varies, depending on local conditions. Isolated rainfall in one field can totally miss others nearby.

"Nearly everyone I've spoken to has some level of decline in their expectation for a crop. Some people we've talked to have a picture of a total loss or a near total loss of crop," he said.

Kelsay said his family's farm received 2 inches of rain about a week and a half ago from a severe thunderstorm that also damaged some fields with high winds. That rain, and a half-inch that fell Wednesday, has greened up the farm's lawns.

But only miles away, lawns and fields remain brown and in dire need of moisture, said Joe Rode, a beef cattle farmer whose family has farms in adjacent Morgan County and three other central and southern Indiana counties where they raise about 1,200 cattle.

"This looks like paradise compared with the way it looks 10 miles from here," Rode said.

Months of drought and sweltering 100-degree conditions have saddled his business with higher feed costs for his cattle, including hay trucked in from Iowa that costs $180 a ton before the shipping costs, he said.

Rode, 65, said some of the springs he draws on to provide water for his cattle have dried up. He's hoping for rain soon to get those springs flowing again.

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