On The Dry Side

A drier spring has been a boon to regional farmers after two years of heavy saturation.

During Thursday’s Midwest and Great Plains Climate-Drought Outlook webinar, Dr. Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Climate Hub, said that drier weather has meant a needed drying of the region’s soil.

“You actually see some of the soil moisture amounts from Colorado up to Nebraska and Iowa being slightly below average,” Todey said.

Even in South Dakota, which also entered the year with heavily saturated soil, the southeastern part of the state along the Missouri River — including Yankton — is now portrayed as having average soil moisture levels at the moment. Most of the rest of the state is still above average, though not quite to the levels of Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan, which have seen more recent heavy rains.

Todey said the drier spring has been beneficial for planting season throughout the region.

“That was really necessary for agriculture to move in that area,” he said. “We’ve been talking about wetness and the potential for flooding all through winter and even into the early spring, and that didn’t pan out. Why didn’t it pan out? Well, because we’ve had dry conditions and soils have dried out. Farmers were able to make progress.”

And farmers are seeing some needed progress throughout the upper Midwest.

In Nebraska, 91% of the corn has been planted through May 17, up 13% over the 5-year average with 54% emerged, up 15% over the 5-year average. In South Dakota, 67% of the corn crop has been planted, a rise of 8% over the 5-year average with 20% having emerged as of May 17, just 2% below the state’s 5-year average.

Both states are also off to a good start for the soybean season. Nebraska has seen 78% of its soybean crop planted, up 36% over the 5-year average with 29% having already emerged, up 21% over the 5-year average. In South Dakota, 60% of the bean crop has been planted — 13% above the 5-year average — with 8% of the crop already emerging, a rise of 5% over the 5-year average.

And while mountain snowpack snow-water equivalent remains somewhat above average in parts of Montana, the drier spring and a lack of much plains snowpack this year should mean a less-taxed flood control system.

“The word from the Corps of Engineers is they feel confident being able to handle anything that comes down at them,” Todey said. “We are starting to melt out of it more quickly and temperatures are finally starting to warm up in that area, but they should be able to handle it. With the recent dryness — especially in the plains — there’s not going to be as major of a contribution there.”

In the Missouri River basin, Todey said there only remain a couple of trouble spots.  

“The only places that are really showing much of anything right now are the James River in South Dakota, which is draining a relatively wet area. (It’s) a flat river that takes a while to dry off southeast South Dakota, and a few more wet areas in the south that are somewhat (caused by) soil moisture and then some recent convective rainfall down in that area.”

In fact, Todey said, bar any overly excessive rain events, the rest of the spring and summer will likely be less flood-dominated.

“I don’t think we have any indications of big shifts towards big precipitation,” he said. “The outlooks did lean towards the wet side. The other side we have to think of, too, is what the pre-existing condition is. Last year, we were very wet coming in. We’ve dried things out a lot this spring, soil moisture does have a  bit more capacity, rivers have a decent amount of capacity right now so that, even if we did get wet, it would not be as problematic. If you get those big rainfalls as Chicago and Michigan have seen, then it doesn’t matter when that happens, it’s a problem. But a larger-scale situation, we’re a little better set if we were to turn wet.”

Wetter conditions are predicted for both June and the three-month forecast predicting above-average precipitation at this time.

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