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Dry soil conditions may lead to difficulties planting next spring

December 22, 2011
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - For farmers every upside has a downside it seems.

This year has seen a late winter with no snow yet to speak of. No snow accumulation makes life a lot easier in many ways, but if the soil moisture is not replenished soon, spring planting may be difficult and more expensive.

Crop consultants say the soil is the driest it has been in years.

"For a farmer, an open winter makes life so much easier," said Jim Fox, field marketer with CHS agricultural service company. "Last year farmers spent hundreds of hours on a tractor just blowing snow. Snow makes hauling grain and tending to livestock difficult."

But, Fox said, if the subsoil layer is not recharged with water, seeds won't germinate.

"All we need is enough moisture to get a crop planted and started, and then rainfall," Fox said. "I'd guess about 6 to 9 inches of rain."

But what if the moisture falls as snow?

The National Weather Service provides a table of snow to melt water equivalents over a range of temperatures, but cautions that actual values for specific storms can vary widely.

According to the NWS tables, at a temperature range of 20 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit, 45 inches of snow melts to around 3 inches of melt water.

At a range of 15 to 19 degrees, it takes 60 inches of snow to yield 3 inches of water.

Farmers certainly need the moisture, but nobody is really enthusiastic about dealing with the 10 to 15 feet of snow needed to moisten the soil.

"It would be nice to get rain before a hard freeze," said Tim Moline, crop consultant with Centrol Crop Consulting. "The freeze/thaw cycle is not going to function without moisture in the soil profile."

According to Moline, when water in the soil freezes, it expands and breaks up big clods and chunks of soil, making it easier to till in the spring.

"Worst case scenario would be a sudden snowfall after a hard freeze, where the moisture was not allowed to permeate into the soil," Moline said.

In that event, the spring thaw would moisten the soil as the snow melted but wouldn't break up rock-hard chunks of soil, according to Moline.

"We'd have to do it mechanically with heavy disks and vertical tillage, and maybe heavy rollers and soil pulverizers," Moline said.

Still, farmers are optimistic enough to plant year after year, fertilize, buy the best hybrids for local conditions, and hope for rain.

"We've always planted a crop," Fox said. "We try to do everything we can, and in the end Mother Nature decides, not us."



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