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Heat, dryness easing; will it matter?

Jeff Caldwell 08/14/2012 @ 9:37am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

There are signs that the conditions that have fueled this summer's drought may be easing, though it's too early to say the drought has ended, weather experts say.

Rain showers have been criss-crossing the Corn Belt over the last few days, and after a break in the rains later this week, they're expected to continue. Those showers are expected to hit as much as half of the Corn Belt soybean crop, according to a report Tuesday from the Commodity Weather Group. That rainfall -- expected to roll into the region early next week -- is then expected to expand later next week.

"While half of the Midwest should see scattered showers, dry spots will likely expand from 30% of the Midwest currently to at least 40% of the soybeans over the next week. This will include parts of central Illinois, western Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and southern Wisconsin, while yield potential should be more stable elsewhere," according to CWG. "Showers then expand in the western Midwest from late in the 6 to 10 day period through the 11 to 15 day period, and this will improve rain chances in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas."

Those improved rainfall chances will likely be accompanied by lower temperatures, adds Craig Solberg of Freese-Notis Weather, Inc. "Temperatures will cool to the 70s behind this front and last thru the weekend. The NWS 6-10 forecast calls for below-normal temperatures for the central section of the Corn Belt for the period from August 18-22 with below-normal precipitation," he says. "The extended outlook from August 20-26 calls for below-to-normal temperatures with the possibility of normal to above normal precipitation particularly in the western Corn Belt during this period."

Will this turn in conditions matter much? More importantly, will it cause any measurable improvements in the drought conditions prevailing over much of the nation's midsection? That latter question will be a tall order; some areas need almost 10 inches of rain to catch up to the normal pace, according to University of Nebraska Extension state climatologist Al Dutcher. As for the former question, though, there could be some benefits.

"The rain will be too late for dryland corn, but should provide valuable moisture to dryland soybeans for pod set and fill. The moisture would also be welcome for wheat producers as the fall planting window is rapidly approaching," Dutcher says. "Even if all of the precipitation currently predicted does occur, it will take some time for drought impacts to ease. Precipitation deficits since last October are running 6-10 inches below normal for most of the state. In order to cut these deficits in half by the end of September, we would need to see 6.5 to 9.5 inches of moisture. Normal moisture from now through the end of September averages between 3.50 inches for western Nebraska to 4.50 inches for southeast Nebraska."

Though it's far from enough to meet the crops' full moisture needs at this point, it's still a welcome bit of relief. "While these rains have been too light to end the drought in most of the central and western Midwest, northern Delta, and central Plains, they have significantly slowed declines in crop condition ratings for both corn and soybeans," says Don Keeney, Senior Agricultural Meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather/CropCast. "However, the rains are coming too late to help the corn crop, and any improvements to soybean potential will be mostly confined to the far northwestern Midwest. Most soybean crops in the central and southern Midwest have been too stressed to be able to recover."

And, after the summer many Corn Belt farmers have gone through thus far, any shower like this is reason to become more optimistic, at least for the soybean crop, as harvest gets closer.

"I was just out in a field of beans this morning that got a shower over the weekend and they looked great. If we could continue to keep getting some rain, we will have beans," says Indianola, Iowa, farmer Blake Reynolds. "I am sure we are in for small soybean size for 2013 but I am feeling more optimistic with every sprinkle."

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