Climatologist 'reasonably optimistic' about soil moisture for growing season

Doug Duncan works on his largest tractor in preparation for the upcoming planting season recently at his farm near Ursa. Farming’s forecast depends on moisture, and right now farmers are coming up short. (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Posted: Feb. 12, 2013 10:12 am Updated: Mar. 12, 2013 12:22 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

MENDON, Ill. -- When it comes to Midwest weather, there's some truth in an old saying: If you don't like it, just wait five minutes and it will change.

Heading into spring planting season, area farmers are more than ready for a change over 2012's hot, dry conditions that hurt both crop and livestock production and continue into this year.

"It could change and go to raining this spring, and we could be fighting getting crops in. With good old Mother Nature, you never know how she's going to act," Mendon farmer Doug Duncan said.

Farming's forecast depends on moisture, and right now farmers are coming up short. Illinois posted its second warmest and 10th driest year on record in 2012.

"The core period, January through July and August, was one of the driest, right up there with the 1930s and 1988," State Climatologist Jim Angel said.

"Historically in Illinois, which doesn't guarantee it, we have not had back-to-back really severe summertime droughts like this year. When you look at 1930 and 1988, typically the year following saw some dry areas, but overall was never as severe as the first year. Sometimes they get back close to average precipitation and kind of see a recovery. That's the good news."

More good news is that Illinois typically is a "wet" state, especially compared with Kansas and states to the west.

"It's not hard for us to get 4 inches of rain in March or April to make a big dent in this," Angel said. "I'm reasonably optimistic in terms of soil moisture that we'll be in pretty decent shape in the next growing season."

Forecast models remain fairly neutral on precipitation for this year, with some showing increased chances of above normal temperatures for much of the United States in April, May and June.

The heat took just as much toll on crops as the dry weather.

"The corn and bean hybrids we're planting today handle drought and heat awfully well, but you put those 100 degree days with staying in the 80s at night, corn fields don't cool out enough to pollinate," Duncan said. "If you had some decent soil and maybe caught a little bit of rain here or there, you had 120 bushels of corn where on a normal year it would be 180 to 200."

A big concern now is carryover effects from last year. Fields that had little subsoil moisture a year ago now have even less, and fall and winter rainfall and snowfall haven't been enough to recharge the soil.

"The traditional view in the past has been with agricultural drought it's a problem during the growing season. Once the crops are out, we don't worry quite as much," Angel said. "This year because it's so severe, some areas have a long ways to go in terms of recovery, which made it more of a concern this winter than a typical year."

During the growing season, moisture needs to come in the right amounts -- and at the right time -- to boost crops.

"It's more critical to keep rains coming throughout the summer than having a whole bunch in the spring and get dry again," Duncan said. "If we could keep three-quarters of an inch coming every week through the growing season, we'd be set."

That wish likely won't come true, but "if you're wishing, you might as well wish good," Duncan said.