Flooding, drought and more are top of mind
The calendar says it’s officially spring in Groton, S.D. The sun is shining, and the birds are chattering. Only trouble is, the frost is still 3' deep. The spring teasers haven’t dampened the mood of local farmer Austin Schuelke, however.
"When it comes to planting, I’m an optimist," he says. "Still, I fear we are going to need some serious heat to get soils to 50°F by April 25 (his target planting date)."
The longer his corn stays in the bag, the bigger the risk of getting his crop to full maturity, Schuelke adds.
"Getting our corn in the ground is very important to us," he says. "Our biggest yield-limiting factor is lack of heat units. Our planting and harvest windows are narrow, and harvesting wet corn isn’t fun for anyone."
Compound this with the fact that researchers such as Randall Miles, associate professor of soil science at the University of Missouri, say a lot of Midwest soils are still reeling from the devastating drought in 2012. Soils oftentimes are still dry 4' to 5' deep.
"This is an improvement from a year ago. However, without enough moisture and nutrients, crops will produce poor yields," Miles adds.
The recipe for a respite is a "long-term drizzly type of rain to replenish the soil"—something that few areas have seen so far this year.
"People think that the problem is solved if we get a few good rains or some significant snowfall," Miles says. "We’ll need extraordinarily persistent rains for the moisture to get down 5' where the roots of mature plants live. It could take weeks or months of water entering the soil surface to move into the 3' to 5' depth of the soil."
Miles says it might take another full year of solid rain and snow to push soil back into normal moisture levels.
While too little moisture is on the minds of those in the western U.S., the opposite is true in other parts of the country. Assessing flood risk is a top priority for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Spring Outlook report, which looks at various weather expectations and scenarios for April to June.
"NOAA produces seasonal outlooks to help communities prepare for what’s likely to come in the next few months and minimize weather’s impact on lives and livelihoods … and build a weather-ready nation," says Maureen O’Leary, public affairs specialist with NOAA.
Because the Midwest has emerged from a colder-than-normal winter, flooding risks might take their time to emerge, explains Robert Hartman, acting director of NOAA’s Office of Hydrologic Development.
Minor to moderate flooding is likely in the upper Midwest, with the severity dependent on snowmelt speed and the intensity of spring precipitation, he says. Notable areas of risk include southern Wisconsin, southern Michigan and portions of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.