Dry autumn: Moisture important to spring planting

Farm Forum

The rain and snow predicted for today could provide some much-needed relief for farmers come spring.

Most of Brown County is in a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor produced by U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of the surrounding area is is abnormally dry.

Unless this winter is void of snow, these conditions shouldn’t carry into spring, meaning some local farmers aren’t worried.

That includes Roscoe-area farmer Elaine Kub.

“It would be better to have nice steady rain, but as long as there’s some sort of precipitation over the winter, I think we’ll be OK in the spring,” Kub said. “At this point, fingers crossed, it’s not something that keeps a person awake at night because we just hope that there will be snow eventually.”

The unseasonably high autumn temperatures — Aberdeen just experienced the warmest early November on record — that have accompanied the dry weather could be a boon in the end, said Laura Edwards, acting state climatologist with the South Dakota State University Extension office in Aberdeen. Because the ground has yet to freeze, any precipitation will soak right in.

“If we do get a big blizzard or a couple big blizzards, we do have that capacity to take in that moisture in the soils,” Edwards said.

The forecast for this weekend — a winter storm followed by warmer temperatures by Monday — is odd for this time of year, Edwards said. But the warm weather has kept the soil warm.

“Once it freezes, whatever moisture’s there kind of locks in,” Edwards said. “We don’t have anything close to frozen soil.”

In Groton, the ground was still 48 degrees 4 inches deep, Edwards said. That means that, unless something horribly unexpected happens, the ground will act as a sponge as things defrost in spring.


A big worry is if there isn’t enough precipitation over the winter. That could mean winter wheat doesn’t get proper cover and spring starts out dry, Edwards said.

“Winter wheat is OK for warm temperatures for awhile, but it does need some cold temperatures,” she said. “It needs some cold temperatures to stop that growth and then it will pick up again in the spring.”

It’s not the best start, but there’s time to make up in the spring, Edwards said.

“Not all hope is lost on the winter wheat,” she said.

The soil conditions in autumn often carry into spring, so the dry ground could be an issue when planting begins, Edwards said.

“We’ll rely more heavily on the spring rain to get that crop started. We don’t have a lot of reserves to get the crop started in the spring,” she said.

So far this month, Aberdeen has been 15 degrees above normal on average, said Troy Kleffman, National Weather Service meteorologist. But precipitation for November is 0.37 inch below normal.

“November tends to be one of our dryer months anyway, so that’s not an insignificant number,” Kleffman said.

The rain that came at the end of October — an inch to 2 inches in some places — has carried the first couple weeks of November, he said.


Another issue caused by the drought conditions is fires. There has been a series of grass, slough and field fires in Brown County this fall, said Scott Meints, Brown County Emergency Management director. The causes vary, but there have been an inordinate amount of combine fires this year.

There hasn’t been much moisture, and much of the grasses and crop stubble are dry, Kleffman said.

“Everything is so dry that it’s not taking hardly anything (to start a fire),” Meints said. “The cattail fuzz gets next to a hot exhaust and it’s just, poof.”

That can happen when somebody drives a vehicle or a four-wheeler through a field.

Controlled burns that get out of control are a pet peeve, Meints said.

“They are completely avoidable,” he said. “If you haven’t done your homework on a controlled burn, you’re just asking for trouble.”

Those types of fires are fought primarily by rural departments, which are staffed by volunteers, Meints said. Having to be called out frequently not only puts a strain on the firefighters, but their families and their employers.

“You leave during Thanksgiving dinner, and I’ve been fighting fires on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” Meints said.

The winter weather may be a welcome change, he said.

“As much as nobody wants snow and to shovel and stuff like that, but we’ve got to get out of this grass fire category to give these guys a break,” Meints said.

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