Across the agricultural heartland of the US, the worst drought in at least 50 years is shrivelling crops, baking pastures and running livestock farmers out of business. DW visited with farmers struggling to cope.
The flat, almost treeless plains of eastern Colorado are dry in a good year. This summer has been one of the hottest and driest on record and the crops are devastated. Dale Mauch runs a large farm near Lamar, Colorado. He's not used to seeing deep cracks in the earth.
"This corn right here is dead," he he told DW, looking out over the field of stunted, dried-out stalks. "You can see by the cracks in the ground how dry it is."
For four generations, Mauch's family has used the Fort Lyon Canal to divert water from a nearby river in order to irrigate these plots. But the river dried out in early July and the canal is empty. "That's something that has never happened in 152 years," he said.
Mauch will salvage as much of his corn crop as possible, chopping it up for cattle feed with a harvester that churns through the fields like an enormous green bug, mowing down the dead corn.
This scene is repeating itself across thousands of kilometers of farmland in the Midwestern United States. Corn is the big cash crop here. This past spring, US farmers planted more of it than any time since before World War II. They anticipated a recordbreaking harvest. Instead, half the crop is dead, or badly battered by the drought conditions.
Life-saving crop insurance
Soybeans, another lucrative crop, aren't doing much better. On the plains of central Kansas, Loren Alderson pulls his pickup off the road and into a dusty field of withered soy plants.
"Two years ago, this would have been about three times this tall," Alderson told DW, pointing to a stunted stalk. "It's to a large degree already lost," he added. The farmer doesn't expect to break even this year.
But according to Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economy specialist at Iowa State University, farmers like Alderson will be saved by crop insurance.
"Upwards of 85 percent of corn and soybean farmers carry crop insurance that is heavily subsidized by the federal government," Babcock explained. The coverage is tied to the changing value of the crops they produce. The drought has cut supply, and pushed prices up. This means that farmers who grow corn and soybeans will be receiving sizable compensation checks for their losses.
Livestock farmers hit hardest
Compensation will allow many of the farmers who own these burned out fields to keep their land. "Crop farmers who bought crop insurance are going to come out of this largely unscathed," Babcock said. "It's the livestock producers who are going to take it on the chin."
Many farmers who raise cattle, hogs, dairy cows or poultry are now selling animals they'd rather keep.
Nathan Pike, 78, is a son of the Dust Bowl, the disastrous, prolonged drought that sent thousands of refugees fleeing this area in the 1930s. He was born in a drought and has lived through droughts before.
"But this is probably the most damaging one I've seen," Pike said. The drought has hit even the hardiest of plants here. "I've never seen buffalo grass die. And it has."
Buffalo grass is the native prairie grass Pike relies on as a principal feed for his cattle. The low hills of his expansive ranch are covered with it, but it is in terrible shape. Relentless heat has torched his pastures.
Pike kneels to touch the toasted blades. "You can see what we're up against, this old stuff is no good at all, and we're in a fire hazard."
Pike's cows won't eat the dried grass, so he has had to buy corn or hay, hauled in from greener pastures. Across the central United States, the death of corn has push feed prices up. Pike can't make money feeding cattle this way, so he has sold most of his herd to a slaughter house. "I've been in the business for 62 years. This is the least cattle I've owned for at least 50 years."
Pike's story is commonplance in this part of the US. There are fewer live cattle in the country than at any time since 1950. High feed prices are expected to keep shrinking the US cattle herd this year.
Until recently, most of the corn grown in the US was fed to animals. Now, the largest part of it is used to make ethanol. A government quota requires that petroleum companies use enough ethanol to account for 10 percent of the fuel burned in cars. The drought and corn shortage have led to an international call for the US government to relax its ethanol mandate.
Meanwhile, government agencies have been able to help livestock farmers a little by opening up land for grazing, buying excess meat for school lunches and providing loans. More substantial help is tied up in Washington.
Joe Aistrup, a professor at Kansas State University, said the current situation leaves farmers high and dry "both in terms of the weather and in terms of relief from Washington."
Farmers like Dale Mauch in Colorado have little choice but to hunker down and pray for rain. "All you can do is start over," he said. "Plant feed, get ready to plant wheat. That's the thing about farming, we're always starting over."