There's no need to worry yet about the dry conditions in Minnesota turning into a drought this spring and summer, experts said Monday, as a winter that was short on snow relaxes its grip.
Nearly all of Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas have been abnormally dry for the past several weeks, and the U.S. Drought Monitor also shows pockets of moderate drought in north-central Minnesota, the Red River Valley and northeastern South Dakota. The thin snow cover across southern Minnesota is already giving way to brown lawns and bare fields, and temperatures in the 50s and even low 60s this week should finish off most of what's left.
While a drought this summer would be unwelcome to farmers in the region who are already facing a second straight year of lower grain prices, there's ample precedent for a turnaround as the planting and growing seasons approach.
"We've frequently seen situations where we go this early in the spring into a dry situation and then we gain relief from it when it turns wetter in April and May," University of Minnesota Extension climatologist Mark Seeley said.
Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said that much of southern Minnesota was in a moderate drought at this point last March, yet it turned into an abnormally wet spring.
In fact, it was the state's second straight unusually wet spring. It was so wet that farmers generally got a late start on fieldwork. Some fields never did get planted. So there could be a silver lining for farmers in the current dry conditions — the chance to get a head start on field preparation and planting once the frost is out of the ground.
"The prospect of an early spring should excite them about getting things done in a timely manner," Seeley said.
And there's another silver lining: there's little chance of significant flooding from snowmelt in either the Red River Valley or Minnesota's other watersheds.
Conditions are mostly normal elsewhere in the Corn Belt, the Drought Monitor shows. And the National Weather Service is projecting equal chances of near-normal, above-normal or below-normal precipitation across Minnesota through May.
"You're always concerned. You always want the crop to get ample moisture. But we have to remind ourselves it's March 9 and crops aren't asking for water right now. So we've got a lot of time to make it happen," said Ed Usset, a grain marketing specialist at the University of Minnesota.
Lower grain prices are a bigger cause for concern. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month forecast a second straight year of lower farm income as corn and soybean prices remain low and expenses creep up. But Dale Nordquist, associate director of the university's Center for Farm Financial Management, said he's hearing positive indications from lenders that the average producer is still able to get financing.
"I think if we can find some way to break out of this next year we'll be able to weather the storm," Nordquist said. "Obviously if we go another year and have these same prices and same costs of production, it's going to get harder and harder."