Moderate to severe drought has gripped nearly the entire state of Minnesota as well as about one-third of Iowa, the eastern third of South Dakota, and the eastern edge of North Dakota.
Abnormally dry soils also extend across the entire state of North Dakota as most of eastern South Dakota is in moderate drought. The worsening drought and lack of snow cover are already causing concerns for area wheat and alfalfa growers and are beginning to worry local corn and soybean producers as well as the Red River Valley’s sugar beet growers.
"We haven’t had a lot of snow cover, so our soil temperatures are abnormally cold, but we’ve also had a mild winter so far," says Joel Ransom, extension agronomist with North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D. "The survival samples we’ve taken have been positive; there isn’t any evidence we’ve lost the wheat crops yet, but we still have some winter ahead of us."
Regional Climatologist Mike Timlin, with the Midwestern Regional Climate Center, says that precipitation has been so far below normal for the past six months in Minnesota that subsoils, particularly in the southern third of the state, are very dry. "Even with normal rainfall, Minnesota will have a subsoil moisture deficit," Timlin says. "The state needs above-average rains to get caught up."
The Dakotas are not as dry. "I’m not overly concerned about the soil moisture. We have deep soil moisture. We just need recharging rainfall in the spring," Ransom says. Dry fields this spring could even have a beneficial impact on North Dakota producers, who will be able to get into their fields early to begin fieldwork, he adds.
Still if severe drought spreads even 50 miles west it would cover Cass County, N.D, one of the nation’s largest soybean-producing counties.
In Minnesota and Iowa, some corn growers are already talking about reducing their seeding rate. "I’m a bit skeptical about that," says Jeff Coulter, agronomist with the University of Minnesota. "If people cut back on the seeding rate, stands might not be thick enough for optimum yield if rains return." Neither Minnesota nor northwestern Iowa had a lot of soil moisture going into harvest last fall and snowfall this year has been way below normal, at least in Minnesota.
Growers are also eager to plant given the mild winter, Coulter says, and that creates the risk that an early spring freeze could damage the new corn plants. Weeds will also be a concern if drought continues. Coulter recommends producers apply a preemergent herbicide and then spray weeds early so they don’t compete with the crop for moisture.
While the bulk of Minnesota’s 8 million corn acres are in the southern part of the state, corn acreage now extends north of Crookston, not far from the Canadian border, says Jochum Wiersma, extension agronomist with the University of Minnesota, Crookston. "I don’t think there has been a lot of winterkill in the wheat, but what might be happening is desiccation," he says. "Freeze drying can kill a crop as well."
Wiersma suggests wheat growers who are concerned about survival of their crop dig up a few seedlings, wash the crowns well, and place them in a moist paper towel. If there’s any life left, new leaves will appear in a few days. "If the crowns are nice and white, that’s a good sign, too," Wiersma says.
While northern Minnesota is not as dry as the southern half of the state, Wiersma says the region needs recharge moisture to get sugar beets and other crops planted this spring. And to keep the crops growing, summer rains will be critical.
The 90-day forecast for the Minnesota and northwestern Iowa is "iffy" for rain, says Timlin. "The Ohio River Valley could be wetter than normal, but it is not clear what will happen in Minnesota and Iowa."
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