Farmers face another season of drought

Farm Forum

Punxsutawney Phil may have jumped the gun, but spring does have to come eventually. And as the mercury rises, the nagging question for many people is whether this summer will continue last year’s parched conditions.

“We are still in a drought,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Billy Williams. “Farmers aren’t going to have a problem with wet fields.”

South Dakota State Climatologist Dennis Todey agreed, and said soil moisture is still depleted from last year’s dry conditions.

“The soils near the surface will probably be somewhat moist, but there was very little moisture in the fall,” Todey said. “Most of the snow we had will not do anything about filling in deeper soil moisture.”

Drought won’t deplete the amount of corn planted, though, if the United States Department of Agriculture’s spring planting survey is right.

The survey, released on March 28, estimates the highest corn acreage, 97.3 million acres, to be planted in the United States since 1936. It’s a slight increase from the 97.2 million acres of corn planted last year in the U.S.

But while record corn acreages are reportedly expected in states like Arizona, Texas, Idaho, Minnesota and North Dakota, the South Dakota’s corn acres are expected to fall from last year’s 6.15 million to 5.9 million this year.

Similarly, soybean acres in South Dakota are expected to slide from last year’s record 4.75 million to 4.6 million acres this year; hay acres to be harvested are the same as last year’s 3.1 million acres.

Winter wheat seeded in the state last fall totaled 1.25 million acres, which the USDA reports is a 5 percent drop from the year prior.

For farmers gearing up toward planting, Todey said their No. 1 priority is waiting for the ground to warm up.

“We’re waiting a little bit for warm-up to get some frost out of the ground,” he said. “We still have very cool temperatures in the soil.”

Williams said that warm-up is likely to come soon, though not too soon.

“We’re still over a month away from our normal last freeze and frosts of the season,” Williams said.

While Williams said April can still clock in some “pretty cold” temperatures, not to mention snowfall — he remembers 10 inches in 1994 — there are no blizzards on the weather radar right now.

April’s forecast is relatively mild, he said, predicting near-normal temperatures and precipitation for the area during the month. Williams said Mitchell’s average temperatures for April vary from a high of 53 to a low of 29 on April 1, to a high of 67 and a low of 42 by the end of the month. The overall average high for the month is 60 degrees, while the average low is 35.

The near-normal precipitation the month currently calls for an average of 2.18 inches in Mitchell.

But, Williams said, weather is fluid and the forecast could easily change.

“It’s very broad and obviously doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee,” he said. “Whether that turns out or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Todey said the quick warm-up, if it happens, is a two-sided cornstalk for farmers.

“It will be a positive initially because soils will warm up fairly quickly and allow them to get field work done fairly quickly,” he said. “But it will require rain to come fairly quickly.”

If that rain doesn’t come soon, Todey said those able to irrigate likely will have to start irrigating earlier than usual.

Those who don’t irrigate, like Letcher farmer Doug Northrup, are “at the mercy of the weather.”

Northrup is readying for the drought-changed landscape. He said he recently finished refitting his 30-foot grain drill with a host of new parts, including new blades and new seed boots. In part, he said it’s just standard updates and maintenance. But, it’s also preparation for dry conditions.

“Part of the reason we’re putting all this stuff on, (the seed) is going to need to be down deeper in the soil better to find the moisture,” Northrup said.

Northrup, who farms about 1,100 acres and does some custom farming on the side, said last year his corn yields varied from 12 to 120 bushels per acre. He agreed that without a good rain early in the season, it could put undue stress on his crops.

If that happens, he said, it all comes down to precision, which is why he’s been willing to invest in some extra equipment updates.

“If it’s going to be dry, you’re going to have to have it planted just right to make it work,” he said.

He’s hoping to get into the fields, where he primarily plants corn, beans and wheat, by the end of April or the first part of May. Last year, Northrup said the early planting enabled the crop to “get most of the growing done” before it got really hot. Whether that would happen again, he’s not sure.

“This year, you might be better off with a late planting,” he said.

And, the dry weather has him considering other options. Should he apply calcium? Would planting 20,000 plants per acre instead of 26,000 give the plants a better chance to find moisture in depleted soils? Would the lower population lose or save him money in the long run?

Like so many farmers, he can run the numbers without a calculator, estimating what the lower plant population would save him in planting costs, versus what higher yields at last year’s prices might bring. But, all of those numbers are still hypothetical.

“Just kind of wondering what the right thing to do is,” Northrup said.