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Spring Corn Belt flooding concerns persist before planting season

Last year marked the second-wettest year in the U.S. with five Midwest states reaching the wettest year on record.

As planting season approaches, soil moisture continues to be an important factor weighing on farmers.

The issue primarily stems from 2019 when the United States battled the second-wettest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the center of the soggy year was the Midwest, where five states saw the wettest year on record.

After the new year, the weather’s maintained mostly mild temperatures in the Corn Belt while avoiding frequent snowfall.

With that said, March and April mark a key time of year for farmers. The two months contribute to early season evaporation, helping grant farmers access to fields.

Last month, Successful Farming discussed the outlook for the Midwest’s spring precipitation with Dennis Todey, the Director of Midwest Climate Hub in Ames, Iowa. With an update on Tuesday, Todey’s views remain relatively unchanged.

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

“Largely, my feelings are still similar to where we were a month ago,” Todey says. “From the standpoint of Iowa, part of Illinois, Nebraska, we’ve not had too much snow since then – northern Iowa’s had some. We’ve not added a great deal of more moisture to the situation, but largely, soils are similar to where they were at this point, so I definitely think the risk is still there.”

Todey notes an updated long-lead forecast from NOAA will be released on Thursday, meaning the forecasts could reveal a better or worse outlook for the Midwest.

Currently, the three-month precipitation outlook has all Midwest states entirely labeled with an above average chance of precipitation except for Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Todey says the northern portion of the Corn Belt remains one of the biggest areas of concern.

“The Dakotas, Minnesota, part of Wisconsin, Michigan, are all legitimate places for concern right now, where we were wet from last fall [and now] there’s snow on the ground,” Todey says. “All of those states set records in 2019 for wettest year on record, so there’s still ample water in those places to get rid of.”

Read more: How carbon heals the soil

The Dakotas also possess some crops from 2019 still in the field to take care of, too. South Dakota is 96% complete with corn and sunflower harvest compared with North Dakota’s 49% completion rate for corn as of late January, according to the USDA.

Regardless of what the next report shows, Todey has heard concerns from farmers after last year’s delayed planting.

“When I’ve talked to producers, and how other people have commented from talking with producers, their concerns right now are with wet soils,” Todey says.

In order to improve the ground moisture situation, Todeys says warmer weather’s needed with limited snow and rain added. 

Todey says hovering around freezing fails to promote evaporation, but the ground would benefit with temperatures consistently jumping into the 50s and 60s during the next couple of months. 

“That wet soil condition is with us until we can start to get some warmer temperatures, and until we can get things in the ground and start growing,” Todey says. “We can dry out the near surface layer with warmer temperatures, but below several inches, it really doesn’t start to change [until] after something’s growing.”

The warmer temperatures also help accelerate the removal of excess moisture through tiles. Todey says he’s heard from people around the Corn Belt that tiles have continued to run because of a lack of a deep freeze in most parts of the region.

To limit the impact moving forward, Todey says to watch two factors of Midwest rain events. 

“There’s two parts going on: amounts of precipitation and frequency of precipitation,” Todey says. “If we get some more large events, that’s going to continue to add to the problem and add to the flooding issues. Frequency of small events may not add a great deal to the flood issue, but from a wet soil standpoint – even if you have a few tenths of an inch of rain two or three times in a week, it doesn’t add much to the flood issue, but it keeps the soil from drying out.”

Read more: USDA's long-term projections keep corn, soybean prices low

For AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler, his primary wetness concerns lie with the southern part of the country. Recently, Alabama, Mississippi, and nearby states experienced heavy and frequent rainfall. Unfortunately for the region, Mohler projects for it to continue early in the spring.

“The southeastern states are very wet,” Mohler say. “They’re in a very wet pattern now. There’s flooding across the deep south – Alabama, Mississippi – and it looks like the soil’s going to be very moist through March and maybe into early April. That’s going to slow fieldwork and planting down there.”

For the Midwest, Mohler holds a pretty positive outlook for Corn Belt farmers when it comes time to plant. 

As with Todey, Mohler also notes concerns with the northern part of the region.

“As for the Midwest, I think things should be in pretty good shape going from March into April,” Mohler says. “We’re not expecting it to be overly wet. There isn’t really much of any snow cover right now. It’s been a mild winter. The snow cover’s pretty far north up in the Dakotas and Minnesota. There may be some flooding with snow melt up there later in March and April in the far north, but I think the majority of the Midwest should be in pretty good shape going into the spring.”

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