Drought slashes Midwest corn crop

OMAHA, Nebraska Fri Jul 27, 2012 5:25pm EDT

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OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - The most extensive drought in five decades has left corn plants withered and dying, and crop yields in the largest producing states will be much lower than experts have forecast, scouts said on Friday as they completed a U.S. Midwest crop tour.

The MDA EarthSat crop tour estimated a corn yield of a 118 bushels per acre after surveying 49 fields in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. That was sharply lower than a U.S. Agriculture Department estimate earlier this month of a yield of 146 bpa and a Reuters poll this week of 130.8 bpa.

"The combination of heat and dryness is the worst since 1988," said Kyle Tapley, head ag meteorologist with MDA EarthSat, who was on the tour. "The widespread nature of the drought combined with the heat left disappointing yields everywhere. We saw variability, but the good is not going to outweigh the bad."

The tour kicked off on Monday in Columbus, Ohio, and ended Friday in Omaha, Nebraska. Scouts trudged into fields of both corn and soybean along a direct westerly route across the Midwest region that accounts for about 75 percent of U.S. corn and soy production.

"We started out poor (in Ohio and Indiana), picked up in western Illinois where things were better than we had seen, but heading into western Iowa was another disappointment," said Christina McGlone, head of ag research at Deutsche Bank who was on the tour.

In the No. 1 corn and soy state of Iowa on Friday, scouts estimated the state's yield at 146 bpa, down 16 percent from the average of 174.7 bpa in the same areas of the state last year.

Some Iowa corn plants were only 4 to 5 feet tall with thin stalks and small ears.

Others, though mostly green, were visibly stressed by heat and drought. Many cobs were well pollinated but have been aborting kernels from the tip, a sign of heat and moisture stress.

West-central Iowa has received about 75 percent or less of its normal rainfall since June 1. A storm on Wednesday night brought only light precipitation.

The region also baked under triple-digit heat in recent weeks. As a result, corn that was planted early was severely stressed shortly after pollinating, and later-planted grain did not pollinate effectively.

The entire state was in severe drought or worse, according to the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor issued by climatologists. More than a quarter of Iowa, in east-central and far southeast areas, was under extreme drought, the first time since January 2006 that any part of the state was in that category.

Soybean plants had many flowers and the top soil was wet after recent rains, but the crop needs more showers as the plants start to form pods, the scouts found.

The tour did not project soy yields but soy crops in Iowa appeared in better condition than those scouted earlier this week in Illinois and Indiana, tour members said.

(Reporting by Karl Plume, additional reporting by Michael Hirtzer; editing by Jim Marshall and David Gregorio)

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