Doubts hang over drought relief
The drought gripping large parts of the U.S. is showing signs of decline in places, and weather forecasters are seeing improvements in the soil moisture outlook for planting season across parts of farm country. However, the record-hot and dry conditions likely will continue to plague many areas through the planting and growing seasons, and big questions remain about how much help recent moisture has brought to the topsoil.
The most recent Drought Monitor update, released March 7, showed drought conditions declining over the past week, with more than half of the continental U.S. (53.34%) still seen to be in drought. About 91% of the central and northern Plains is still suffering from drought. Drought conditions increased to 55% of the southern Plains and Delta, but declined to 45.7% of the Midwest, according to the report.
The latest analysis from the U.S. Drought Outlook (USDO) also sees ongoing problems with drought in key agricultural regions, where in some areas drought is expected "to persist and expand." (Story continues below.)
The latest U.S. spring crop weather & drought forecast maps *
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Going forward, weather patterns hold some promise for improvement, forecasters say. "We have been seeing a change in pattern across the midcontinent, with the active storms in the Plains, Midwest, and Delta, and I do think this will lessen the extent of the drought a bit," Don Keeney, MDA Weather Services told Agriculture.com.
Soil moisture in the Delta and central and eastern Midwest should be good for spring planting and early crop growth, says Dan Hicks, Freese-Notis Weather. The Southeast, too, has seen beneficial moisture over the past few months and most areas probably have enough soil moisture to get the crops off to a good start, Hicks said.
Farmers in the western Midwest and Great Plains may see enough topsoil moisture to get crops growing. But because many areas are so low on subsoil moisture, "the potential still exists for concerns if rains are less than normal once we get into summer," Hicks said.
A look back
Another view of the weather, looking at patterns from past drought years, gives pause for concern, says Keeney.
"The analogs (years) that we have been following point to a return of a general drier pattern across the north-central Plains and northwestern Midwest in April, and especially May," Keeney says.
Keeney's 31- to 60-day outlook sees the Southeast, northern Plains, and northwestern Midwest trending drier, which he says brings concern as to "whether the moisture will hold into the growing season."
Analysis of historical weather data by the company Statweather shows a return to normal this year for large areas east of the Missouri River. But a dry summer could return in places, too, including in the Ohio Valley and central Midwest. In the upper Midwest, a return to normal conditions could be on tap by late spring.