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Prince Edward County, Virginia, soybean producer, Bill Hamilton rides shotgun while neighbor and friend Paul Paxton drives a soybean harvester, cutting Hamilton's disappointing crop and leaving it to serve as ground cover that will provide a degree of weed control for the field. Drought conditions over the summer coupled with rains that returned too late suppressed the state's soybean crop significantly.

Many of Virginia’s crops have managed to rebound to appreciable harvest yield levels despite being threatened by several months of hot, extremely dry weather that blanketed the state for the second half of the summer.

The favorable rebound from earlier heat stress and low rainfall totals are due to a recent series of replenishing late-season rains that have fallen across the state, providing at least some of the state’s farmers a reason to feel relieved. The rains have improved crop and soil conditions enough to effectively end a prolonged period of hot, dry weather that remained firmly anchored over the Mid-Atlantic for the second half of the growing season, depleting soil moisture contents to alarmingly low levels and visibly stressing crops across the state.

By early to mid-October, conditions over portions of the state had deteriorated to D (moderate drought) and even D2 (severely depleted) conditions, according to data listed in weekly crop and livestock condition reports compiled and released by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Reports indicate that the extended dry, hot weather was severe enough to reduce adequate topsoil moisture content across Virginia well below 15% and drove as much as 65% of the state’s topsoil into the severely depleted category as late as mid-October.

Sorely needed bouts of precipitation have gradually increased in frequency — with considerable quantity fluctuations in isolated areas — since the third week of October. Recent rainfall amounts have been sufficient to eliminate drought conditions statewide.

Although conditions statewide have generally improved from the increased frequency and amounts of precipitation as well as cooler temperatures that correspond with seasonal change, some Virginia farmlands, namely pasturelands intended for livestock grazing, remain in poor condition from the summer’s drought. A USDA NASS report on livestock and crop conditions dated Nov. 3 indicated that a mere 11% of Virginia pasture was considered in good condition. Thirty-five percent of pasture fell into fair, 40% into poor and 14% into very poor categories, according to the report.

Forage grasses grown for hay have similarly been slow to improve due to the limited number of growing days remaining in the season. The same report listed grass hay conditions as only 22% good. Forty-two percent of hay listed as fair, 28% as poor and 8% as very poor.

Depleted or compromised pastures as well as limited hay harvests are two potential points of concern for both Virginia cattle producers and dairy operators who must sustain their herds over the winter months.

Hugh Jones of Dinwiddie County-based Richlands Dairy and Creamery, however, said that he feels confident that the dairy’s current forage stores will more than sustain their herd through the winter.

“We are OK on hay,” Jones said. “We managed to get a decent first cut and an OK second cutting before the dry weather set in. We won’t be able to sell quite as much hay this year as we would like to … some, I’m sure, but we are fine.”

Richland’s soybean harvest was acceptable, too, according to Jones.

“We averaged around 45 bushels at first cut,” he said, “It dropped to around 25 bushels an acre the second time around.”

Virginia soybean did sustain a significant negative impact from the drought and heat. State soybean harvests are estimated at 21.3 million bushels, a 14% decrease from the previous year, according to USDA NASS’s Oct. 1 Crop Production Forecast.

Bill Hamilton, a Prince Edward County soybean producer, elected to simply cut portions of his crop for field cover.

“There are a couple of spots here and there that look right good,” Hamilton said, pointing out sporadic areas of denser growth, “Once you get up higher in the field it’s thin, though — too thin,” he said.

Estimated at 145 bushels per acre at first cut and 95 bushels per acre at second cut, Richlands Dairy and Creamery’s corn silage harvest yield supported a statewide condition regarding both corn silage and corn as well — Virginia corn and corn silage crops not only revealed little to no negative effects from the drought, they were strong. The USDA’s Production Forecast report indicates that Virginia’s corn crop did exceptionally well and that the state corn harvest yield, estimated at 55.5 million bushels, is an impressive 17% increase over the previous crop.

The USDA listed Virginia cotton production projections for 2019 at 220,000 bales, 22% more than the previous year. A projected yield average of 1,015 pounds per acre is 119 pounds per acre higher than 2018.

For a full range of statistical data on agricultural crops, livestock, weather and projections, visit the USDA NASS website at bit.ly/NASSStats.