With spring floods causing late planted crops, farmers need everything to fall into place for a decent harvest, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official said Thursday.
Dennis Todey, director of the Midwest Climate Hub, summed up the answer in three letters — GDD, or Growing Degree Days.
Farmers need heat to mature their crops and keep the fields dry, Todey said in a national webinar. At the same time, they need timely rains.
“We have to continue walking a fine line in adding GDDs and limiting stress on crops with limited soil moisture,” he said. “If we can get some (precipitation) on those areas, this is about the best we can do.”
For now, the forecast looks mostly in the farmers’ favor. The seven-day forecast for the Yankton region calls for a chance of rainfall yet this week, followed by several days of dry, warmer weather.
The extended forecast also looks favorable, Todey said.
“The 8-14 day outlook stays more likely on the warm side,” he said. “This is OK in adding GDDs. Since temperature climatology falls off through August, these temperatures are likely not stressful except for limited soil moisture areas.”
The region has seen a weak El Nino system, which comes off the Pacific Ocean, and the system looks to remain in a neutral pattern, Todey said.
“Typically, an El Nino summer tends to be good for our growing season,” he said. “This wouldn’t have been a bad growing season if not for the excessive moisture and wet conditions at the start.”
South Dakota and Nebraska have experienced excessive moisture since last fall. The soil has remained saturated, and some farmers left their crops in the field. The winter produced large snowfall, and a March bomb cyclone inundated the region.
Many farmers planted much later than normal, and some farmers gave up planting altogether. Recently, hail storms hit portions of southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska, wiping out some corn and bean fields.
During the last 90 days, South Dakota has areas recording 150-300 percent of normal precipitation. More recently, South Dakota has areas that received 6-11 inches of rainfall during the past month, along with some pockets of Nebraska and eastern Kansas.
Crops face a race against time, Todey said. Given the current lag in crop maturity, farmers need to hope for a late freeze, he added.
“We certainly need the frost and freeze conditions to go as late as possible to allow maturity,” he said. “Some corn isn’t going to reach maturity no matter what, because it was planted too late.”
South Dakota and Nebraska stand out among other states in terms of the year they have endured, according to Aaron Wilson with the Ohio state climate office.
“South Dakota had the third wettest July on record, and Nebraska was above-average for precipitation,” he said on the conference call. “South Dakota and Nebraska had above- to much-above average for precipitation.”
The two Plains states aren’t alone, Wilson noted.
“When you look at the last 12 months of precipitation, many states (range from) much above to a record wettest 12-month period of August to July,” he said, noting those states may continue to build on the streak each month.
“It gives a good indication of what we’ve seen over the past year,” he added.
During the past month, a stretch from the Dakotas to Missouri has seen distinctly cool maximum high temperatures, Wilson said. Some areas of South Dakota ran 4-6 degrees below average.
On the other hand, the region has seen the minimum daily temperatures remain mild, Wilson said.
“A lot more area is covered by warmer overnight lows,” he said. “You have the humidity and the water vapor in the area, so it tends to stay warmer than drier air.”
Still, the late-planted crops face challenges in overcoming the saturated soil.
The bull’s eye remains on South Dakota, whose topsoil maintains a 31% surplus, Wilson said. The Rushmore State has seen frequents rains, which has increased the surplus moisture.
“There is a lot of ongoing discussion on beating the hard freeze,” he said.
In terms of the harvest season, there is an elevated probability of below-average temperatures across Montana and South Dakota, Wilson said. Meanwhile, there is an increased probability of above-average precipitation across the Dakotas and Nebraska.
“In summary, we anticipate near-average temperatures in the western portion of the central region. We have very wet conditions in parts of the Missouri (River) basin — South Dakota in particular — which is hindering the release efforts of water from upstream reservoirs and is maintaining area flooding,” Wilson said.
“The long-term effects on ag continue to be felt. The (recent) weather has been dominated by warmer-than-average temperatures across the region, and we hope that keeps the freeze at bay across the region so crops have the chance to mature.”
Crops still need warm weather and timely rains to develop and maintain strong root systems, Todey said.
“We had a large amount of soil moisture starting last fall, but we weren’t able to get a crop planted (last spring) because of the cool and wet conditions,” he said. “There was very little in the way of removing water from the soil. You can drain soil, but it still has some water capacity.”
The warmth and GDD will help draw down the water in the soil, Todey said.
“Part of our problem this year is that plants have not been able to develop deeper roots system,” he said. “Some places have moisture, but the plant isn’t able to get there because the roots are not reaching the moisture.”
The harvest can still turn out well, but it needs to shift into high gear and receive help along the way, Todey said.
“We have conditions that have stabilized. They don’t get worse, but they don’t get a whole lot better. We’re just limping along,” he said. “There is still the opportunity for corn and soybeans that have decent yields. Things aren’t done yet.”
With so many factors at play, it’s difficult to know how things will turn out, Todey said. If everything falls into place, he remains optimistic that a good harvest can still be achieved.
“There are huge questions about what this corn crop is going to look like and what this soybean crop is going to look like,” he said.
“Some of the excessive wet areas are going to have problems. The short answer is to stay tuned. There’s a lot to be answered in this situation.”
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