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Drought 'fearmongering' mounts

Summer may be a couple of weeks away, but according to the thermometer in a lot of spots around the country, it's been here for quite a while already.

And now, the already-dry conditions in much of corn and soybean country could be getting drier in the coming weeks, creating a lot of crop stress and risk moving through the summer, weather-watchers say.

Temperatures have trended higher than normal in most of the nation's center, from Michigan to Texas, since last winter. It's not the first year this has happened, though. So, what's happened in past years when spring has been more summerlike?

"Since both the winter and spring ranked among the 10 warmest ever, we see three years that tend to pop out at us including 1934, 2000, and 2006. The composite temperature tendency shows a general trend of coolest weather in the northeastern part of the country, and warmer than normal in the southwest part of the country," says Freese-Notis Weather, Inc., ag meteorologist Craig Solberg. "And what about precipitation? It looks like the drier than normal precipitation pattern in the Midwest is going to continue into the summer months, with the best chances for above normal precipitation in the northeast and parts of the intermountain west."

That prognosis means, despite rainfall over the last few days in some spots in the Midwest, the stress will ratchet up on the young Corn Belt crops, says MDA EarthSat Weather senior meteorologist Don Keeney.

"Much more significant rainfall would be needed there to sufficiently replenish moisture supplies," Keeney says. "Rains did improve moisture in the eastern Midwest this past weekend, but the expected drier pattern across the central and western Midwest this week will allow moisture shortages and stress on corn and soybeans to rebuild."

That rebuilding crop stress has already been widely noted on farms around the Corn Belt. And, some speculate that stress is trimming even more off the top end of corn yields than has already been taken.

"Hot and dry on the way. National yield should be 160 bushels/acre or lower," says Agriculture.com Marketing Talk veteran contributor 425Cat. "

How exactly is the corn crop "getting nipped" right now? The early heat is causing uneven emergence and a lot of spotty fields where some seed is aborting altogether before poking through the crust.

"Plant mortality has reduced populations in some fields. Initial development of the nodal root system has been restricted in some fields. Leaf rolling (plant wilting) is occurring in some fields in corn that has barely entered the rapid growth phase," says Purdue University Extension agronomist Bob Nielsen. "Many fields have yet to develop the healthy dark green associated with a crop that has entered the rapid growth phase, probably because their root systems are functioning poorly in response to the excessively dry soil conditions. The appearance and color of plants throughout many fields are extremely variable and painful for growers to look at."

It's a little early to tell just how much yield these conditions are stealing. An uneven stand is just one component, albeit a big one, of a shortened crop. But, there's a lot of time left in the growing season, certainly too early for too much "fearmongering," Nielsen says.

"We can describe the effects but it is difficult to predict the exact results on grain yield. Grain yield in corn is the multiplicative result of plant population, kernel number per plant, and weight per kernel. The effects of stress on grain yield are determined by how the stress directly or indirectly affects these components of grain yield," he says. "The good news is that the season is yet young and the return of moderate growing conditions could still turn around this crop. But time’s a' wasting. The sooner the dry spell breaks, the sooner additional loss in yield potential can be avoided."

So, when will the dry spell break? It's still looking mostly dry and hot for much of the nation's midsection. Relief may come within the next week or so in the form of scattered rains in some parts of the Corn Belt, but it won't quite be enough to trim soil moisture concerns.

"Moisture deficits are unlikely to improve much this week in the Corn Belt, with the exception of near the Gulf Coast. However, showers do expand a bit more in the western Midwest and Delta by the latter 1/2 of the 6 to 10 day period and the northern and eastern Midwest in the 11 to 15 day period," according to Monday's Commodity Weather Group (CWG) Ag QuickSheet report. "While soil moisture will still be marginal in all but the northwestern Midwest, the 6 to 15 day rains could help to limit immediate stress to less than 1/4 of the Corn Belt for now."

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