A word on seasons that start off on the wrong foot
There’s been much talk of the severe drought currently plaguing the West and High Plains, but drought has also quietly but steadily crept into the Midwest. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 45.89% of the Midwest is currently categorized as having some level of drought as of mid-April. That’s the highest level for this time of year in more than a decade.
This is cause for concern—after all, a strong start to the growing season is critical for high yields. Digging into a decade’s worth of April drought maps and final corn yields found a dry start to the season doesn’t necessarily doom it. The opposite is also true—a season that starts out with low incidence of drought might not end up with bin-busting yields.
Look at 2014 and 2005 as prime examples. In 2014, a moderate amount of the Midwest (40.57%) was suffering under some level of drought. That didn’t stop the crop from rolling to a record 170.99 bu. per acre. In 2005, however, the Midwest started spring planting pristinely, with 93.89% of the region declared free of drought. Come harvest time, yields clocked in as the third lowest of the past 10 years.
Getting off on the right (or wrong) foot rarely makes or breaks a crop season, says Eric Snodgrass, director of undergraduate studies for the University of Illinois Department of Atmospheric Science. For the 2005 season, Snodgrass notes the year started off wetter than normal but was plagued by several dry spells during the growing season.
“By the end of the season, total accumulated precipitation was quite a bit below average,” he says.
If there’s less-than-normal rainfall, as long as the rain comes regularly, corn is hearty enough to withstand the deficit and still produce decent yields. But irregular rain and not enough rain are a much more troublesome combination, Snodgrass explains.
As for 2014, Snodgrass says despite starting off a little dry and very cold, the growing season was marked with regular rainfalls and very little extreme summer heat.
“2014 was just about as perfect as it gets,” he says. “A little dry to start the growing season forced the plants to put roots down deep to search for water. Establishing a deep root system makes the plant more healthy, and when all of the rain did come June through September, the corn easily handled the excess and used it to produce a bumper crop.”
For spring 2015, Snodgrass has his eyes on the southern part of the Corn Belt, from eastern Texas through Louisiana, Arkansas, southern Illinois and the Ohio River valley. He’s not worried about drought, however—quite the opposite, in fact.
“Some locations have received 200% of their normal rainfall, which has delayed planting,” he says. “If they don’t get their crop in on time, there is a risk that summer heat can hit during the reproductive stages for corn.”
Snodgrass is also concerned about northern Corn Belt states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota. These areas have been very dry for the past two months, a trend that is expected to continue through May.
What about El Niño? Snodgrass says it always brings the hype, but it doesn’t always bring extra yields.
“When I looked at 12 summer El Niño events since 1950, six years had above-average yields, and six years had below-average yields,” he says.
Out West, the drought continues to put pressure on farmers and consumers alike. “You can’t have all good years,” says Dave Campbell, California rancher. “You take the good with the bad, but when you get four bad ones in a row, it starts to wear on you.”
His pasture isn’t the only parcel of land needing a drink. The latest drought monitor shows nearly the entire state experiencing some level of drought, with nearly 45% in the most extreme category.
With the statewide snowpack already hitting record lows, it’s a dire situation calling for desperate measures. Gov. Jerry Brown has demanded a 25% reduction in water use. It’s up to local water agencies to decide where to cut.
By Julianne Johnston
The Boy is Back, But He’s Weak
A weak El Niño was reflected by above-normal average sea surface temperatures (SST) across the equatorial Pacific by the end of March, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Compared to February, more models predict El Niño to continue throughout 2015. NOAA says there is about a 70% chance El Niño will continue through the summer and more than a 60% chance it will last through autumn.
There is “considerable uncertainty” as to how strong this event might become, as NOAA notes model forecast skill tends to be lower during the Northern Hemisphere spring, which limits the forecast probability of El Niño through the year.
Meteorologists are generally in agreement that adverse weather is less likely for the Midwest during an El Niño event, but it can depend on the strength of the event. However, meteorologist Gail Martell of MartellCropProjections.com says it doesn’t take a strong El Niño event to influence weather patterns. Even a weak event can bring El Niño-like conditions to the Midwest. She says there is risk of below-normal precipitation in the eastern Corn Belt during an El Niño summer, but the western and northern Corn Belt would likely see timely rains to support crop development.