Drought persists as spring planting arrives
By Jennifer Carrico
With spring planting just around the corner, farmers are wondering if the winter’s moisture was enough to pull them out of the drought.
Iowa State University Extension climatologist Elwynn Taylor said the western part of the Corn Belt hasn’t seen enough moisture to pull them completely out of drought conditions.
“West of Interstate 35 from Minnesota all the way down to Texas is still suffering from drought conditions,” he said. “The eastern Corn Belt has had enough moisture to replenish their soil and is no longer considered to be under drought conditions.”
Taylor said several factors must be taken into consideration when determining whether the drought has come to an end. First, to determine whether the ground has been replenished with enough moisture to take areas out of drought, moisture is measured from Oct. 1 to May 1. In the Midwest, normal moisture in that time period would be 11 to 13 inches.
With this amount of moisture, soils would be replenished to 5 feet down, which is the normal rooting depth for corn and soybeans.
“However, because of the drought we suffered the past couple years, but especially in 2012, the water table has been lowered even more because corn and soybean roots were going down as much as 8 or 9 feet to find water. This means we will need even more moisture to replenish our soils,” said Taylor.
He said 2 inches of moisture is needed per foot to replenish to normal moisture levels. With the lower water table, the western Corn Belt will need 16 inches of moisture to get back to normal levels.
“Typical winter weather from southeast Iowa to Ohio has replenished their soils because of a strong La Nina weather pattern,” he added.
He warned that the residual effects of La Nina can present increased risk of a continuing drought in the rest of the Corn Belt. By the first day of spring (March 20), Taylor said atmospheric weather patterns start to get back to normal and changes rapidly occur. Even though the weather pattern changes are not yet apparent, he said by mid-April, it will be more predictable.
“Scientists don’t expect the El Nino weather conditions to start in the Corn Belt until June. It takes a good month to 40 days before weather changes with a changing weather pattern,” he said. “Changing to the El Nino conditions would positively influence the Corn Belt.”
While there is a chance that the Midwest would stay in drought conditions, he said that probability is only about 20 percent. He warned, however, that even with an El Nino weather pattern, he doesn’t expect an above-normal trend yield for the Corn Belt this year.
“We do anticipate this year will be much better than last year, but not like the record-setting yield years we saw in 2004 to 2009,” he said.
Kansas State University meteorologist Mary Knapp said the moisture seen in the High Plains recently has certainly helped the drought conditions and some improvements have been seen in northern Kansas and Nebraska, but it’s still not enough to get these states out of drought conditions.
As of late March, Knapp said 96 percent of Kansas is still considered to be in a severe drought or worse, with only small areas seeing a shift to moderate drought.
“Temperature is going to be a big factor for Kansas when it comes to drought conditions. If we see above-normal temperatures, we will need more precipitation,” she said.
Knapp said in Kansas the soil moisture improves faster with cooler temperatures. When the ground is not frozen, the soil moisture can improve faster, but there continues to be a lack of surface water and farmers and ranchers have ponds and creeks that continue to be dry.
Wheat is in need of appropriate moisture starting in April, while alfalfa, grass, corn and other crops need the moisture in reserve for the months that are normally hot and dry.
“At this point we aren’t sure how much precipitation is actually soaking in to the soil,” she said. “Eastern Kansas has seen some improvement, but western Kansas is still suffering. To end the drought we would need at least 6 to 9 inches of precipitation.”
She said the outlook is not as negative as it was last year, but she’s also not as encouraged as she would like to be.
“We continue to be severely challenged for enough moisture to raise the crops and animals that we are used to raising,” she said.
The drought outlook through the end of June shows improvements forecast across much of the Dakotas and Minnesota. Some improvement is forecast for the most intense drought areas of the central and southern Great Plains. Prospects for drought improvement decrease further south across the southern High Plains and Texas according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.