Severe to exceptional drought has gripped the Great Plains from New Mexico to southern Minnesota. In the southern part of the drought area, producers always have the option to plant cotton, assuming they are set up for it, but in the central and northern part, the best options remain corn and soybeans. In areas without irrigation, corn acres could give way to soybeans if surface soils are dry.
"People will be looking at prices and estimated yields," says Roger Elmore, agronomist at Iowa State University. "If it is dry again at planting, like it was last year, there will be more pessimism and people could switch from corn to soybeans."
Yields tend to be lower with back-to-back plantings of corn. "The yield penalty is greater in a dry year than it is in a wet year," notes Elmore.
The drought area in the western Corn Belt has recently received precipitation in the form of snow, but if melting is quick and soils are still frozen, most of the moisture will run off instead of percolating into the soils. And subsoil moisture remains very dry in northwestern Iowa.
Recent snows and colder temperatures than last year could also slow planting.
Subsoil moistures in southwestern Minnesota are also very dry. "There’s enough moisture for corn to be planted, emerge, and to geminate," says Jeff Coulter, agronomist with the University of Minnesota. "But beyond that, it depends on what we get for rainfall."
Coulter notes that since most producers already have their inputs locked in, they’ll stay with whatever planting decision they’ve already made.
"There is moisture at the soil surface," says Coulter. "That will be enough to get the crop off to a good start."
Years that are on the drier side typically yield good stands. "This could be one of the best years for corn," he adds.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Nebraska is ground zero for the drought. Except for a sliver in the southeast corner of the state, which is suffering severe drought, the remainder of the state is covered by extreme to exceptional drought.
The bulk of Nebraska’s corn acres, however, are irrigated, primarily by pivot irrigation systems. Thus moisture concerns, both during planting and through the growing season, are not as prevalent as they are in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota.
"Western Nebraska is still far behind in terms of precipitation, but the eastern part of the state has gotten more snow, but it, too, is behind," says Tim Shaver, agronomist with the University of Nebraska.
Shaver does not expect a big shift out of corn into other crops due to the drought. "Even with the drought last year, our irrigated corn yields were very good," he says.
Elmore suggests that producers with dry fields go easy on tilling, and says that before planting corn, be sure to check for soil moisture. "How deep you put the seed needs to be monitored," he says. "You have to find the moisture. If it is too dry at the surface, you’ll have to go deeper than normal."
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