COLUMNISTS

Focus on Ag: Drought conditions intensify in the Midwest

Kent Thiesse
Farm Management Analyst
Kent Thiesse

As the 2022 harvest season is rapidly drawing to a close, many areas of the Corn Belt are now in a moderate to severe drought, with conditions worsening in the past couple of months. The latest “U.S. Drought Monitor” released on October 27 places all of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, Kansas, and Missouri at some level of drought, as well as much of the major crop producing areas of Minnesota, Illinois and North Dakota. Currently, approximately 60 percent of the tillable crop acres in the U.S. are being impacted by some level of drought. The National Drought Mitigation Center, which produces the updated U.S. Drought Monitor on a weekly basis, indicated that current conditions are comparable to the Fall of 2012, when over 61 percent of the U.S. crop acres were impacted by some level of drought.

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly all of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and North Texas is now categorized to be in either the extreme drought (D3) or severe drought (D2) category, with a growing portion of that region in an exceptional drought (D4) category. There is a growing area of worsening drought in the Ohio River Valley and Southern Mississippi River basin area. Nearly the entire western two-thirds of the United States is listed in some level of drought at the end of October. Some Western States and Great Plains States have been dealing with drought conditions for two to three years. Areas that are in the extreme (D3) or exceptional (D4) drought areas are more likely to incur significant crop loss and have extremely limited forage production.

Based on the U.S. Drought Monitor for Minnesota on October 27, all areas of the State except the Arrowhead region and a small portion of North Central and Northwest Minnesota were categorized in some level of drought. Nearly the entire Southern half of the State was in the “moderate” to “severe” drought category, with a small portion of Southwest Minnesota and a larger area just west and south of the Twin Cities metro area in an “extreme” drought category. Back in mid-Summer of 2022, very few areas were listed in any type of drought category.

Sometimes the “Drought Monitor” is somewhat misunderstood. It is meant to measure the overall long-term impacts of extended drought conditions, as compared to representing current crop conditions. This is why some areas that are listed in “moderate” or “severe” drought may still have had fairly good crop yields in 2022, even with below average rainfall, depending on the timeliness of the rainfall events during the growing season. Some portions of the Upper Midwest also benefitted from starting the 2022 growing season with average to above average levels of stored soil moisture, which has also helped maintain crop development through some very dry periods during the Summer months.

The continued drought across the region is certainly a concern as we look forward to the 2023 growing season, with stored soil moisture levels across the Midwest at historically low levels in many locations. The post-harvest stored moisture levels at many reporting stations ranges from near zero to only a few inches in the top five feet of soil, compared to normal levels of six to seven inches of stored soil moisture in late October. Nearly 75 percent of the primary growing areas in the U.S. for winter wheat are in moderate, severe or extreme drought conditions, which is at the highest level in over twenty years. Winter wheat is seeded in the Fall and harvested the following Summer. Dry soil conditions in the Fall can result in poor germination and stunt the early growth of the winter wheat, which can result in yield reductions the following year.

The intense drought conditions in some corn and soybean production areas can also lead to challenges with Fall fertilizer and manure applications, as well as making Fall tillage more difficult. Nitrogen fertilizer costs nearly three times as much as it did two years ago, so farmers need to carefully consider Fall soil conditions if they plan to apply anhydrous ammonia this Fall. Producers may also want to limit their Fall tillage or consider the use of cover crops to reduce the potential for wind erosion during the Winter months.

According to precipitation data at the University of Minnesota Southwest Research Center at Lamberton, drought-like conditions have existed for the past 2-3 months. From June 1 to October 28, 2022, the Lamberton location had received only 6.57 inches of precipitation, which is 9.73 inches less than average, and represents only 40 percent of the normal rainfall amount during the Summer and Fall months in 2022. By comparison, the U of M Research Center at Waseca in South Central Minnesota received close to normal precipitation in June, July and August but has become quite dry in September and October. Waseca has received only 1.08 inches of precipitation in September and October, while Lamberton has received only .93 inches. Other two-month precipitation totals for September and October from the National Weather Service, included Wheaton at .47 inches and Windom at .62 inches, which were both the driest ever recorded, and New Ulm at .60 inches, the third driest in history.

The warm, dry weather during late September and October has allowed the Fall harvest season to progress quite rapidly in most areas of the Upper Midwest. By the end of October, soybean harvest had been completed and corn harvest was about 80-90 percent completed across southern Minnesota. Overall, the “whole-field” corn and soybean yields across the Midwest were highly variable, even in the same county or township, depending on the amount and timeliness of rainfall events during the growing season. Some areas of Southern Minnesota and North Central Iowa had some of their best corn and soybean yields ever, while farmers in Nebraska, Western Iowa and portions of Southern south Dakota had greatly reduced crop yields due to the drought impacts in 2022.

The good news for all producers regarding the 2022 corn harvest has been the low harvest moisture of the corn coming out of the field, and the high quality of the corn. Most of the corn being harvested in Southern Minnesota in the past few weeks has been at 15-18 percent moisture, meaning it can go directly to farm grain bins with very little or no additional drying, or can be hauled to grain purchasers with very little price dockage for excess kernel moisture. The rapid field dry down of the corn is saving most producers $30.00-$35.00 per acre in anticipated corn drying costs. Most of the corn being harvested in Southern Minnesota has had a test weight that is at or above the standard test weight for corn of 56 pounds per bushel, which also adds value to the corn.

The fire danger throughout in many areas remains extremely high due to the very dry conditions and frequent windy days. These conditions can quickly ignite field and grass fires that can cause significant damage. Farm operators need to use extra caution with farm machinery, grain trucks and other vehicles in the very dry fields. They also need to make sure that fire extinguishers are working properly and take other necessary fire safety precautions. The general public must also take care not to accidentally ignite a fire near farm fields, or in other rural areas. The ongoing drought conditions in many regions are also highly visible with the extremely low levels of lakes, rivers, and streams. In some instances, areas that have suffered intense drought levels for two or three years could also be impacted by reduced ground water levels.

Based on the weather data in Southern Minnesota, the Fall precipitation pattern in 2022 is very similar to the pattern in the fall of 2011. Of course, the Fall of 2011 was followed by the major drought in the Summer of 2012, which was quite intense in many areas of the Midwest and across the U.S. The Summer of 2012 was driest since 1988, another major drought year, and was the second hottest Summer on record, trailing only 1936. The 2012 drought caused nearly $30 billion in agricultural losses, resulting in a loss of approximately 25 percent of the U.S. corn and sorghum crops, as well as major impacts on hay and pasture production and large financial losses to U.S. beef producers.

On the other hand, both 1976 and 1952 also had very dry conditions in the Fall in the Midwest; however, both years were followed by above normal precipitation and fairly good crop production in the following year. So, there is no certainty when it comes to predicting long-term weather patterns based on current conditions but there is certainly cause for some concern as we look ahead to the 2023 growing season.

For additional information contact Kent Thiesse, farm management analyst and senior vice president, MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, Minn., at 507-381-7960 or kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.