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Midwest winter dryness continues

Jeff Caldwell 01/09/2012 @ 9:10am Agricultural content creator and marketer.

The small town of Cordova, Alaska, has had 18 feet of snow this winter. That's a far cry from what's fallen in the Midwest thus far, and that lack of winter precipitation's stoking anxiety about heading into the 2012 growing season way short on soil moisture.

Seventy percent of farmers responding to an Agriculture.com poll say they're either "on the dry side" or "dry as a bone" at this point in the year. And, they're not alone; an Iowa State University (ISU) fall subsoil moisture survey late last year showed much of that state's moisture-deficient, with the problem spiking in northwestern Iowa, where soil moisture dept ranged from 1.4 to 5.6 inches where the soil has the capacity to hold up to 11 inches of subsoil moisture.

"These results confirm what is expected in terms of reserve soil moisture," says ISU Extension field agronomist Paul Kassel. "The amount of rainfall has been very limited since mid-July in many locations. Rainfall amounts since mid-July have been six to nine inches below normal."

To put dry conditions like that into perspective, University of Missouri soil scientist Randy Miles says as dry as it is in his state, it could take a monster winter to recover. He guesses 16 to 18 inches of rain will be needed to replenish the soil moisture that's been lost in his state. That equates to more than 13 feet of snowfall, more than double the average winter in Missouri.

"People think that if we get a few good rains that the problem is solved," Miles says. "Those rains will only put moisture into the first few inches of soil. We'll need extraordinarily persistent rains for the moisture to get down 5 feet where the roots of mature plants live. It could take many weeks and months for water entering the soil surface to move into the 3-5 feet depth of the soil profile."

Conditions like these can spawn other problems in getting the 2012 crop started, if it does stay on the dry side between now and planting time. Dry winter soils could be tough to manage when it's time to plant, says Agriculture.com Marketing Talk veteran advisor kraft-t.

"I do wonder about the fall-tilled soils not having enough moisture to freeze and mellow the clods," he says. "It could make it tough to prepare a good seed bed."

But, if you did till last fall, you might be in better shape than had you waited, adds Marketing Talk senior contributor Pupdaddy. "I don't think lack of moisture will cause a problem with freezing out the clods in fall-tilled fields. It has been my experience that if you till dry soil in the fall, it is already in better condition than if it was at near field capacity and had tillage done to it," he says. "It then takes quite a bit less 'freeze/thaw' action to actually condition the drier clod than it does to condition those wads of soil thrown off when it's wet."

Either way, Kassel and University of Missouri plant sciences director Mike Collins agree that in-season rainfall, or lack thereof, will make or break the 2012 crop in areas like northwestern Iowa and Missouri.

"Crop production will be very dependent on summer rainfall without a reserve of soil moisture going into the summer crop growth time period," Kassel says.

Adds Collins: “I expect to see next year’s crops be more dependent on current rainfall. If we don’t get timely rain, I think we’ll see crops shut down much quicker than we did this year.”


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