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Northern Corn Belt weather lags as planting starts in southern Midwest states

Late April and May should see an uptick in temperature, but May could be slightly wetter.

Planting season inches closer for many around the Midwest, and some states have even begun planting, as the first 2020 crop progress report showed on Monday.

Weather is always an important ingredient for the planting season, but this year it could be more top-of-mind for farmers after a wet 2019.

Read more: USDA's first Crop Progress Report shows 3% of corn planted

Early April

So far, 2020’s been mostly gentle to the Midwest in terms of wetness, but the region has missed out on some needed warmth.

Most of the Corn Belt missed out on any major snow during January and February, and March stayed mostly neutral weather-wise.

“The first couple weeks of April, in general, a lot of the Central Plains have been below average [in precipitation], and that extends over into Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana,” says Chad Hahn, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Des Moines, Iowa. “Areas across the northern part of the country – the Dakotas, northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin – have seen slightly above-normal [totals] in precipitation, but the bulk of the Plains and the Midwest have seen slightly below-normal precipitation during the first two weeks of April.”

Even with the slightly below-average precipitation totals, the evaporation and drying have been limited without consistently warm temperatures.

Read more: Wetness status across the Corn Belt remains a concern

Second half of April

While the first half of the month hasn’t brought consistent warmth, Hahn says he expects this to slowly improve as April progresses.

“We see a warming trend as we work into the end of the month, but it’s going to be gradual,” Hahn says. “We’re not going to end up in the 80s by the end of April, I don’t think. It’s going to be a gradual slow rise. I think the trend is going to trend up warmer. It does appear as we get into the end of the month, the cooler conditions will continue near the Canadian border, so states like North Dakota, northern Minnesota, and northern Wisconsin look to see a trend of cooler-than-normal conditions up in that area.”

The northern patch of the Midwest mentioned by Hahn expects to be the exception for the region with a bulk of the Corn Belt reaching normal or slightly above-average temperatures. 

Read more: Increased risk of flooding in central and southeastern states

May Outlook

Following the gentle warmup in the latter half of April, May figures to also maintain a slightly warmer outlook than average, according to Hahn.

May looks to bring more warmth, but it is also projected to have an increased chance of above-average precipitation, too. Hahn highlights Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as the main areas that could be targeted for above-average precipitation, but the odds favor the entire region for increased precipitation chances.

Hahn says it’s too early and far out to know if the increase in precipitation could be similar to 2019’s spring, but he says last year was highly unusual.

“The delay was [record-breaking] obviously,” Hahn says of 2019’s planting season. “We don’t see that this year. To have that in back-to-back seasons would be highly unusual.”

Read more: Expect to see more floods and drought this spring and summer

Top Concerns

Conditions have been relatively good so far this year, but flooding concerns still persist for the early parts of the growing season. In some spots, flooding has already played a role in 2020 with snowmelt and high river levels.

“The next few days and the next week, we don’t see any major precipitation events, especially across the northern tier states,” Hahn says on Tuesday. “The Dakotas and Minnesota look to be fairly dry. That’s good news when we’re dealing with flooding from snowmelt and recent rains in some of those areas.”

With the short-term outlook appearing positive, outside of a week or so is too volatile to accurately predict if flooding could emerge beyond that.

Read more: COVID-19 can't stop Illinois corn planting

What to Watch For

Regardless of what state a farmer is in, they’re probably checking the weather frequently and monitoring ground conditions and soil temperature.

Of course, temperature and precipitation are two key factors to watch. Hahn breaks them up, though, and provides details to pay attention to with each one.

With temperature, watch the afternoon warmth for drying the topsoil along with whether it’s sunny or cloudy. On precipitation, not only is the volume important, but also the timing of rains.

“Obviously, any additional precipitation events play a key role as well,” Hahn says. “I think the distancing between those precipitation events can be important, as well as the coverage area vs. the spotty or hit-and-miss springtime thunderstorms that we can sometimes get.”

Read more: Looking past precipitation: monitoring values for other evaporation variables

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