Shift in Drought

January 6, 2012 09:59 PM

Dry conditions climb north

The severe drought that has gripped Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas for the past year or more has spread north into the western Corn Belt, including western Missouri, eastern Nebraska, the
Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa.

While some improvement is expected long-term, drought conditions will persist at least through the end of the current forecast period of Feb. 29.

In parts of Iowa, the soil cores being pulled are bone-dry. Field agronomists have reported that the soil is dry to depths of 5' in northwestern Iowa, which is now categorized as a severe drought area, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor map released Dec. 6.

"We are desperately dry right now," says Chad Hart, an agricultural economist with Iowa State University. Parts of his state are reportedly as much as 9" behind in precipitation.

Soil in southern Minnesota is just as dry. The Southwestern Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, Minn., reported less than 3" of stored soil moisture in the top 5' of soil in November, and most of the moisture was found between 3' and 5' deep. The Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, Minn., reported less than 5" of stored soil moisture in the top 5' of soil.

Spring recharge a concern. Chances are that the western Corn Belt will get enough spring moisture to wet the topsoil so corn and soybeans can be planted. "It could be enough for germination, but if the rain shuts off, it’s going to be a bad deal. We are concerned about the recharge and timing," says Dave Nicolai, a University of Minnesota Extension crops educator in St. Paul, Minn.

Without adequate recharge, corn growers might have to adjust plant populations, according to Nicolai. For instance, instead of planting 35,000 plants per acre, they could scale down to as low as 30,000 or 32,000.

This past fall, the soil was so dry in southern Minnesota that some producers damaged equipment during tillage. As a result, some tillage was left undone and some fertilizer applications were postponed, Nicolai says.

In fall 2010 and early 2011, Iowa faced a similar situation, but a wet spring followed. "Even if the Upper Midwest receives above-average snow-fall during the winter, the dry climatology limits prospects for significant drought relief," according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Parts of Minnesota this past year experienced their driest autumn on record. The last widespread droughts to affect Minnesota growers were in 1976–77 and 1987–88. "In 1976, farmers in southern Minnesota were seriously talking about investing in irrigation equipment," Nicolai says.

Iowa was also hit by those droughts. The 1987–88 drought reduced Iowa’s corn and soybean yields to their lowest levels in more than a decade.

Farther west. Many areas in northeastern Nebraska, southeastern North Dakota and eastern South Dakota were close to setting, if not actually setting, records for their own driest autumns as well, according to Natalie Umphlett, a climatologist with the High Plains Regional Climate Center at the University of Nebraska.

"The main concern is how much soil moisture will be available next spring," she says. With the ground now frozen throughout most of the region, the focus next spring will be on snowmelt and the water content of snow, as well as rain in the early portion of the planting season.

On the bright side, Umphlett says, dry conditions this past fall helped dry down corn. The best time for drought conditions to occur, she notes, is in fall and winter.

 Shift in Drought


La Niña in the Year Ahead

2011 was a banner year for La Niña weather. Tornadoes, drought, floods and hail wreaked havoc on crops and pastures. As a result, hundreds of counties were classified as disaster areas.

Fred Gesser, Planalytics senior global agricultural meteorologist, says the signals show that the U.S. will experience La Niña weather patterns again in 2012. But, he says, not all La Niñas are the same.

Here are some concerns Gesser has about a repeat of La Niña:

Flooding damage: Those affected by floods this past spring and summer could likely see a repeat of high water. Gesser says the Upper Missouri River Basin will receive above-normal precipitation for the third consecutive year. The flooding might be delayed as it was last year, when flood levels were not seen until all of the snowpack melted.

Planting delays: "I think we’ll have back-to-back years of planting delays," Gesser says. Wet conditions in the Ohio Valley, Tennessee Valley and Mississippi Delta will likely last through spring.

—Sara Schafer


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