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Another wet Corn Belt spring planting season is not being ruled out

After a wet 2019, dryness becomes a key factor to the 2020 planting season.

Each flip of the calendar brings farmers closer to planting. With wetness and other weather factors deteriorating the 2019 planting and harvest experience, precipitation remains on the minds of many as the new year begins.

Last year established new precipitation records for cities located in Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Annual Climate Report. Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and seven other states also featured a location that surpassed the top five wettest years on record.

With that in mind, there’s concern for more saturation and flooding in the spring of 2020.

Spring Concerns

Dennis Todey, the USDA director of the Midwest Climate Hub, notes that the models lean toward a wet spring, and despite a weak confidence level, concern still persists.

Todey uses a combination of computer modeling and trends to help evaluate future precipitation. While the two main factors are aligned, the probability at this point isn’t too strong, meaning it could flip despite projecting to be a little wetter than normal. 

“Our trend is toward [a] wetter spring, so those two things line up to why they are saying that possibility,” Todey says about the relationship between the trends and computer models. “Our concern on our side is not so much the outlooks are saying this very strongly – they’re not saying it too strongly – but because our soils are so wet throughout a good chunk of the Corn Belt at this point, and that will change very little before planting. That’s what has me concerned right now. Anything that even leans toward above average puts us at a possibility for delayed planting again.”

Todey says the NOAA climate prediction center outlooks help guide them.

Meanwhile, AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler points out a trend in the southern and central Plains that could shift into parts of the Midwest. Mohler says the area could be pretty dry throughout the spring and into the summer, and the dryness could reach parts of the Corn Belt.

Even with the dryness in portions of the region, Mohler says the northwest part of the Corn Belt still raises concerns.

“There’s snowpack in the northwest corner of the Corn Belt right now,” Mohler says. “It’s probably near or a little bit more than normal. Expect some more snow to build up there in the next month or two, so it’s going to take a little while for that to melt – it’s going to slow things up in the northwest corner.”

While the future presents challenges for the Dakotas and northwest portion of the Midwest, the past weather also continues to damage the outlook.

“Anything that even leans toward above average puts us at a problem for delayed planting again.”

“The Dakotas combined and western Minnesota, southwest Minnesota,” Todey points out as his biggest concerns for planting. “North Dakota has the added complication of, in addition to being warm, they still have around half their corn still in the field. For people who are going to be planting on those acres, they’ve got to get their corn out before they can even start anything else. That’s our concern in that area.”

At the end of December, North Dakota’s harvest progress sat at 48%, according to the USDA’s Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin

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Eastern Corn Belt

The states located in the eastern half of the Midwest dealt with wetness throughout 2019, but harvest ran smoother than the Dakotas and surrounding states due to some stretches of dry weather. Since then, though, precipitation has picked up and been pretty consistent, according to Mohler. 

“The southeast third of the area has been in a pretty persistent storm track in recent weeks and maybe even a month or two,” Mohler says. “[It’s] had a lot of precipitation through there, so that area’s been somewhat moist, and that probably will continue to some extent through March and maybe into early April, but our thinking is later in April and May is that that storm track may start to shift a little bit and weaken.”

Mohler says rain could still fall without the storm track, but the consistency should die down in the eastern part.

Mohler’s major concern for moisture lies farther south, including areas in the Tennessee Valley, the Carolinas, Georgia, and areas around there.

Todey says the eastern Corn Belt figures to be in better shape looking forward because fall 2019 didn’t hammer the area as hard as other places with rain. 

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Preplanting Season

Before farmers jump to planting, the rest of winter and early spring needs to unfold. Before spring rains come, winter plays a key role in wetness moving forward.

Todey says he’s obviously watching the total precipitation that arrives in the Midwest and the frequency of it during the winter, but he’s also keeping an eye on the temperature early in the spring.

“If we stay on the cool side or at least not warm, that limits our ability of surface soils to dry out,” Todey says. “If we get some period of warmth after the soils thaw out, and I’m talking in the March to early April time frame, then we have a chance of maybe not being delayed too much in our area. Our areas to the north, the northern Plains [and] up in that Corn Belt area, we have significant concerns up in that area, so they really need to be very dry well into the spring to have a decent chance to plant on time, and that’s going to be very tough for that to happen.”

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Missouri River Valley

Areas around the Missouri River took a beating in 2019 with repeated flooding. While the flooding let up, the damage remained and the impact is still present.

The Missouri River and bodies of water that stem off it still possess an excess of water in some areas, and spring showers paired with melting snow could load up the areas again.

“What we’re talking about here is overall soil moisture situations,” Todey says. “For those places that are in flood-prone [areas], especially in the Dakotas and maybe even the Missouri River Valley, we have real concerns because they have those wet soils. So the whole system up there is backed up in the way of wet soils; rivers and streams and slews are full already. They can’t take anymore precipitation period, and they have a decent amount of snowpack up there already. We haven’t even gotten to the wet part of winter yet – the typical part where we get bigger snowstorms. The flood perspective on many places, especially up there, is a real concern.”

Mohler also identifies the Missouri River as a key player in the rough 2019, but he holds an optimistic projection of the area. 

“One of the problems was the Missouri River flooding,” Mohler says of 2019. “If there is any flooding this year, it’s relatively minor and more than likely, there won’t be much of any there.”

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Postplanting Season

If another wet year comes, or not, the growing season still remains essential for 2020. Todey says an El Niño or La Niña isn’t expected, limiting the outlook for the growing season, but he does point out some trends.

Todey looks at temperature as a key variable. If planting is pushed back, warmer weather is needed to catch up before fall. He says trends show the growing season as featuring lower daytime high temperatures, but higher nighttime temperatures. 

While Midwest weather tends to be a fluid variable, Todey encourages farmers to construct a plan and learn from past experiences with the focus on preparing for any kind of weather challenges Mother Nature throws at them. He says locking in propane ahead of time may not be a bad plan, despite it being earlier than normal.

On the other hand, Mohler forecasts a better-looking spring in 2020, saying some places may find farmers are ahead of the normal pace in the Midwest.

“I think that in general, it’s going to be a spring that’s more favorable for planting, especially compared with last year,” Mohler says. “Not a perfect spring, but some areas planting may even be ahead of schedule, especially the southwest corner: Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas – those areas might have some pretty long spells of dry weather that would allow planting to get even ahead of schedule.”

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