Minnesota Farmer

Drought eases in the east, continues in the west

Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist, reports that 55.82% of the country still in drought. “But we’ve knocked out the eastern Corn Belt.”  While the country at large had some pretty good rains from November through January, we haven’t had much relief until this week in the Midwest, he says.  Palmer Drought Index 2-23Weather is personal, you may feel fine that your area is now out of the drought, or very concerned if you are still in a severe to extreme drought area like I am here in Southwestern Minnesota.  The next few months are going to be critical for our area crops.

We’ve had very little snow in our area this winter, and what we have had has been a dry type of snow.  Snow falling on frozen ground does little to recharge the subsoil moisture, and that is where we need water.  Without gentle long term rains, we will have our crops come up and then die.

Last fall we did some digging in the fields.  This digging left me concerned for the 2013 crop.  There is so little water in the top 4 feet of the soil profile that I wonder how roots will get down to the little bit that is below 4 feet.  Compound that with the needed tillage to get our crops started, tillage that will dry out those top few inches, and we could be in real trouble.

Our area of Minnesota usually needs drainage tile to dry it out so that we can actually get tillage done.  Depending if your soil is more clay, sand or rock, you will have more or less water in it.  Organic matter, sometimes called loam, from old roots and buried plant stalks also plays a part in the water holding ability of soil.  Our soil varies from heavy and wet clay loam to almost pure sand.  Sandy ground takes near continuous rain since water runs right through it, while clay soils tend to hold water tighter.  In our area even the clay soils are dry.

Even deep rooted perennial crops like alfalfa and our younger trees are showing the stress.  Our late season alfalfa last year was a disaster, and I have several evergreen trees that are dropping their needles.  These are not good signs for an available water source.

The only bright spot in the planting season is the advent of more drought resistant varieties.  Choice of drought tolerant varieties of field crops along with genetic modifications that help to control root pruning insects and encourage root growth may just give our corn and soybeans a chance to get down to that deep water.  This is going to be a real test.  I know that we now plant corn and soybean varieties that are so much better than when I started farming, but I still worry.

So now we wait and see.  A third year of dry weather would be very unusual, but the whole climate seems to be changing.  We have been moving away from long gentle rains to rapid downpours.  Rapid rains do not stay on the land, long gentle ones do.  If these dry conditions persist we may have to rethink the crops we grow in this area.  Time will tell.


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