Warmer temps, low moisture levels could put 2013 crops in danger

Farm Forum

The ground may be covered with snow now, but underneath that white blanket is very dry soil.

The dry conditions were caused by South Dakota’s warmest year in more than 100 years of recorded temperatures, according to recently released data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The average temperature in the state was 49.3, about 3.5 degrees warmer than average, according to the NOAA data.

“It was even warmer than the drought years of the 1930s because those years had cold temperatures, which brought down the averages,” said Dennis Todey, state climatologist.

For example, in 1936, the state had a hot summer, including its all-time record high, 120 degrees in Gann Valley, but it also had its all-time record low that year, 58 below zero in McIntosh.

South Dakota had about 68 percent of its normal precipitation last year, the lowest since 1976.

The record warmth and low moisture have put farmers behind the eight ball as they head into the new year.

“It is a high level of risk this year,” said Todey. “It is dry, and we don’t have that bank of moisture that we can draw from.”

Aberdeen had its eighth warmest year on record and its ninth driest in 2012, said Todey.

Brown County farmers escaped the worst part of last year’s drought in part because subsoil moisture levels were high from the preceding two wet years.

Also a few timely rains in the summer allowed for a good corn and soybean harvest. There was little moisture after the harvest.

Most of northeast South Dakota, including Brown, McPherson and Edmunds counties, is rated in the severe drought category, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor. The majority of the state is in the extreme and exceptional drought category.

For example, Yankton and Vermillion are in the exceptional drought category, having received only 2 inches of rain during June, July and August and not a lot in the fall, Todey said.

While snowfall can help topsoil, there is not enough moisture in it to recharge subsoil moisture levels, said Laura Edwards, climate field specialist for SDSU Extension.

“As any farmer will tell you, cross your fingers for April rain,” she said.

Todey agrees that spring and summer rains will alleviate drought conditions, not heavy snowfall.

“The soil is frozen now, and when the snow melts much of it is going to run off,” he said. “It will be beneficial to lakes, which may have dropped because of the drought, but it won’t help the soil that much. You could have 2 feet of snow, but it is not going to help subsoil.”

Many farmers are asking if the spring will be wetter than last year.

“That is the $100 million question,” Todey said.

At this point there is no clear picture, he said. There is no major upstream weather pattern this year, such as El Ni–o or La Ni–a, on which to base predictions, he said.

Two of the models used to predict spring weather are in conflict, he said. One model shows adequate rainfall, but the other is based on the