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Is Iowa out of drought trouble yet?

By Staff | Aug 31, 2012

WEATHER EXTREMES in 2012 have made commonplace cornfield scenes like this with fully formed ears on green stalks located next to dry stalks and ears that are suffering from poor pollination and lack of rain.



AMES – The good news about 2012’s drought is that it’s as sporadic and infrequent as the lack of rain itself.

The bad news is, don’t forget the lessons learned. Volatile crop years are likely ahead.

With crops maturing and harvest underway in some Iowa areas, farmers are thinking ahead to next year and what will be in store.

What growers, merchandizers and consumers want to know is, “When is it going to return to normal rainfall?”

Two men whose business it is to follow weather patterns are not painting a rosy picture – Bryce Anderson, meteorologist and analyst for DTN, who looks over days and months; and Elwynn Taylor, an Iowa State University Extension climatologist, who studies patterns over decades and centuries.

Anderson and Taylor emphasized the severity of this drought by comparing it to droughts of the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s.

“This is one of the worst droughts we’ve seen,” Anderson said.

He said 2012 is worse than the 1980s and noted that today’s younger farmers would not remember anything like this drought.

Taylor compared 21012 with the mid-1950s drought that “did a little more damage than this one.”

Both Anderson and Taylor are looking for drought-producing La Nina to be replaced by an El Nino weather pattern, which Taylor described as “a friend to the Midwest farmer.”

The El Nino pattern made a start, but La Nina weather has hung on stubbornly.

“The El Nino is not all that established,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the jet stream has been sitting on the U.S.-Canadian border much of this summer creating favorable growing conditions for Canadian farmers who have not suffered as much with dry conditions.

Anderson does not see the drought ending this fall or winter and expects farmers will go into spring 2013 still dry.

When asked about the possibility of $20 soybeans, Anderson did not hesitate, saying it depends on how high the market wants to go.

The volatility in both weather and markets has resulted in a “nervous trade,” Anderson said. This has created a “completely new world.”

Taylor said he’s looking for some relief for next year once El Nino conditions arrive.

He is predicting a good year for 2013, but not necessarily a great year.

“There is still a reasonable chance of El Nino being the weather controller for winter and spring,” Taylor said.

This will recharge the soil and eliminate the temperature extremes of the past year.

But it’s in the years following 2013 for which Taylor thinks farmers need to prepare.

He used the mid-1930s as an example where 1934 was awful, 1935 was not as bad and 1936 when bad conditions returned.

Taylor said there is a weather cycle of 25 years of volatility interspersed with 19 years of consistent crop yield.

This has happened four times in recorded weather observations.

Taylor said 2012 is year one of the 25 years of volatility.

A more recent occurrence was recorded with a pattern of favorable weather over many years. By 1973 farmers thought bad weather did not happen anymore, Taylor said.

1974 arrived with a late frost, an early frost and the second strongest La Nina n record.

Using 800 years of weather obtained from studying tree rings, Taylor said the worst weather year occurs about every 89 years.

Taylor said that in Iowa, the worst years for weather have been in 1847 and 1936. The next one is due in 2025.

Taylor is advising farmers to use the lessons learned from the 2012 growing season to prepare for the coming years as this volatile weather pattern will become normal.

Taylor said the volatile weather will create volatile markets.

“Farmers will have to manage it correctly,” Taylor said.

More drought woes

Other parts of the world are in drought situations as well as the U.S., said Anderson.

In India, farmers depend on the monsoon season to provide the water for their crops. Anderson described it as “a very poor performer” providing 20 percent of its usual rainfall creating “issues on crop production” for India’s oil seeds.

Anderson said dry conditions exist in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine, where conditions resemble the very severe drought of two years ago.

South America is dry with problems in Argentina corn production along with dry conditions in Brazil, Anderson said.

Midwest recap

Taylor identified La Nina conditions being responsible for the current drought and these were the second strongest La Nina conditions on record, second only to the mid-1950s drought.

This drought began in July 2011, Taylor said, with the soil profile full of water and tiles running. This provided the needed water to finish the 2011 crop.

2012 crop year began with only one-half of the available water in the soil profile.

Problems from a lack of rainfall were compounded by this summer’s high temperatures in the mid and upper 90s.

Taylor said the heat stress that begins when temperatures are over 86 degrees and reaching its full effect at 93 degrees required more water for crops than when cooler conditions prevail.

This resulted in crops grown in 2012 putting roots down 7 to 9 feet when 5 feet is average.

With two inches of water available per foot of soil, crops reached for the water left from 2011, Taylor said.

Ten inches of water is available in the top 5 feet of most soils and 11 inches is available in better soils to provide the part of the 20 inches of water needed from planting to maturity for a crop to achieve an average yield.

Taylor said the 10 to 12 inches of water to start with will provide a yield, “but if we don’t have the water from rain, we don’t have the crop.”

With the soil profile depleted of its water, Anderson noted that the drought will not end with just rainfall, but the time required for recharging the soil profile.

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