LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — With each dry day, the odds of salvaging decent corn and soybean crops dwindle for western Kentucky farmers like Bill Clift.
Clift planted 3,600 acres of corn and beans this spring in hopes of cashing in on high grain prices, but his crops are struggling from an unrelenting dry spell. Now triple-digit temperatures are forecast later this week, coming at a crucial stage as his corn pollinates.
The double-whammy of intense heat and drought has shriveled his optimism, and he's not alone. There's growing talk that many farmers in the hardest-hit areas will have to rely on crop insurance checks to help get by as the outlook worsens for crops.
"Worst crop I've ever seen," the 44-year-old Clift, who farms in Caldwell, Lyon and Crittenden counties, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We're all hoping for rain and praying hard for it. But at some point in time we have to be realists. And we may not make a crop."
In the spring, government agricultural forecasters said farmers were intending to plant Kentucky's largest corn crop in more than a quarter century. Now, the prospects for that large crop have diminished.
One-fourth of the statewide corn crop is rated in poor condition and another third is in fair condition, a crop-reporting service said this week. The soybean crop also is showing signs of lower quality as the dry spell endures.
Meanwhile, subsoil moisture has worsened, some pastures have turned to brown stubble and farm ponds are drying up.
Some Kentucky farmers are dipping into hay supplies generally reserved for winter to feed hungry cattle herds now.
The worst of the dry spell is in the western Kentucky grain belt. In Paducah, precipitation is nearly 12½ inches below normal for the year, said Tom Priddy, a University of Kentucky extension agricultural meteorologist.
In nearby Graves County, the hot, dry conditions have caused corn leaves to twist. In some fields, corn stands are short and sparse, said Kenny Perry, the county's agricultural extension agent.
"The corn situation is grave, simply because we have been so limited on moisture from the beginning this year," he said. "If we don't get rain within the next 10 days ... that will get the majority of our corn."
The county's farmers are looking at the prospect of average corn yield plummeting to the 70 to 80 bushel per acre range, half of normal yields, Perry said. Soybean yields could drop into the teens, compared to average yearly bushel-per-acre yields in the low to mid 40s.
Perry said crop insurance will cover farmers' input costs, but probably won't be enough to make payments on land or equipment.
With such a bleak outlook, some farmers in the area already are trying to get out of contracts made with grain elevators, knowing they won't be able to deliver on promised crop volumes, he said.
"It is a very dire and grave situation for our farmers," Perry said.
Since mid-March, Clift's farmland has gotten about 1½ inches of rain. His crops, starved for moisture, now will have to endure triple-digit heat in coming days. High temperatures will soar into the high 90s to low 100s from Thursday through the weekend in the western half of Kentucky, according to the National Weather Service. There's a slight chance of showers on Saturday.
"I'm afraid by the time we go through these 100-degree temperatures, I don't think there will be anything left to salvage," Clift said of his corn crop.
Moisture deficits aren't as bad elsewhere in the state, down nearly 7 inches for the last six months in central Kentucky and down 5 inches in the Bluegrass region, Priddy said. In eastern Kentucky, the moisture deficit is 3.2 inches, he said.
There may not be much relief in sight. The forecast for the next month calls for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation in Kentucky, he said.
In Harrison County in north-central Kentucky, farmers still have the potential to harvest decent crops, but the odds are dwindling each day without rain, said Gary Carter, the county's ag extension agent.
Corn yields have been reduced, but soybeans could still pull through with decent yields if timely rains occur, he said.
"It's getting pretty serious at this point," he said. "We're looking at a major disaster if something doesn't happen real quick."
As of last Sunday, the state's corn crop was rated 35 percent fair, 33 percent good, 18 percent poor, 8 percent very poor and 6 percent excellent, according to a report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service's field office in Kentucky.
The statewide tobacco crop was rated 50 percent good, 29 percent fair, 9 percent excellent, 9 percent poor and 3 percent very poor.
Having reaped a nice profit from last year's crops, Clift said that financially he could withstand one bad drought year, but "two of 'em in a row would be the end." He worries that some farmers won't make it through this year's down year to plant another crop.
"If it continues to stay as dry as it is, this fall and winter there will be farms on the auction block," he said. "There are guys out there that cannot make it through, even with crop insurance."