By Jennifer Stewart and Keith Robinson Purdue News Service
---- — WEST LAFAYETTE – Hot, dry weather that has returned to Indiana is beginning to take its toll on the state's corn and soybean crops, which Purdue Extension specialists said needed rain within days to keep them from deteriorating further. "A month ago I was very optimistic about the size of this corn crop, but now I'm less so," corn specialist Bob Nielsen said Thursday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected earlier this month that Indiana farmers would produce 979.4 million bushels of corn – annually the state's largest crop – compared with the drought-reduced 596.9 million bushels last year. Nielsen said yields in individual, drought-stressed fields could fall by as much as 10 percent because of the dry spell. Yield loss would be in the form of reduced kernel weights, not numbers of kernels per ear, because most of the crops were well into the grain filling period when the dryness hit. "It's certainly not as bad as last year," Nielsen said. "We were optimistic this year that we'd see exceptional yields, but now we may have to settle for good yields." Although Nielsen said it's too late for the crop to recover, a widespread, soaking rain within a few days could prevent further damage and yield loss. The state's soybeans also are at a critical time, said soybean specialist Shaun Casteel. "We need rain to retain pods and to finish seed fill," Casteel said. "The hilltops of some fields are burning up, and those plants will not recover. But there isn't that much severe stress in most of the state. "Even if soybeans lost pods due to this water stress, rain within the week would help yield recovery via seed size. It might prevent further deterioration. " Some of the stress in soybeans is from conditions at planting time, Casteel said. Some fields delayed in planting have poor root systems from too much rainfall in June. There was a chance of rain for Labor Day weekend, according to the State Climate Office, based at Purdue University. That would be followed by a strong but brief cold front before temperatures rise and conditions become mostly dry again the remainder of the week. A return to normal temperatures, with a slight chance of below-normal precipitation, was in the outlook for the following week. Drought last year shriveled farmers' crops and led to fire and watering bans across Indiana. The drought ended over the winter, and any remaining abnormally dry conditions were erased by frequent rain in the spring. But the state has been caught in a dry spell in recent weeks. An average of 1.73 inches of rain fell across the state this month through Aug. 27, down 1.5 inch from the normal of 3.23, the State Climate Office said. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that abnormally dry conditions have returned to most of the central and far northwest counties of Indiana. The Drought Monitor and the weekly Indiana Weather and Crop Report soil moisture survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture concur that abnormal dryness covers about one-half of Indiana land. The abnormally dry spell also is in states neighboring Indiana. Moderate drought, the first level of drought, is in Illinois. The State Climate Office will continue to monitor the conditions and provide updates as needed, said Dev Niyogi, state climatologist.