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Dry soil needs more rain, but hard to predict

Timely rains made for a better-than-expected harvest this year, but farmers shouldn’t expect to get lucky twice without more moisture

November 8, 2012
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

Late rains just before harvest resulted in better than expected yields, but unless the soil profile is filled, farmers may not be so lucky next year.

"We're not out of the woods without adequate soil moisture," said Terry Schmidt, regional agronomy manager for the agricultural service company CHS Inc. "We were just lucky to get the rain at the tail end. Between now and spring we could handle a lot more rain."

By a lot more rain Schmidt said he means six to eight inches spread out over the season to allow the precipitation to soak into the soil, which is dry down to the tile line right now over most of southwest Minnesota.

Article Photos

Photo by Steve Browne
Jeff Strock, soil scientist with the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center office in Lamberton, shows off an instrument that monitors soil moisture and temperature in a field outside of Milroy.

"Rain so far has made tillage a lot easier, but it's not enough to fill the soil profile," Schmidt said. "If we had missed one of the rains at the end we wouldn't have had a crop."

But last season the rains tended to be spotty and highly localized over the area, rather than a general coverage, according to Lyon County farmer Joel Schreurs. The results were highly variable over the area.

"Last year I had no rain through July where I live and I got one of the better crops I've had," Schreurs said. "It's very locational. North of me five miles, they got one of the best crops ever raised, but they got the rains."

Schreurs said he didn't think the soil is as dry as it was last year, depending on whether it's heavy moisture-conserving soil, or the lighter sandy soils that moisture drains through more readily.

Jeff Strock, a soil scientist with the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center office in Lamberton, has been keeping track of soil moisture trends for a long time now.

"As of November 1 the data show 1.2 inches of available soil moisture in the top five inches," Strock said. "In October, measured on the first and the 15th, it was 0.2 inches at a depth of four to five inches."

That's an improvement, but the 1.2 inches we have now is stored only in the top one foot of soil, according to Strock. The good news is that soil conditions are ideal for receiving and storing moisture.

As to whether the rains will oblige, Mike Griesinger, a meteorologist with the Chanhassen office of the National Weather Service, said it's hard to tell.

"The first good winter storm for the center of the continent is going to bypass southwest Minnesota entirely," Griesinger said. "It depends on where the storm track sets up this year."

According to Griesinger, last year the central Canadian provinces had very little snow cover, which affects weather systems further south as the northern air masses meet the warmer southern air. This year, there is already snow cover along the international border, and more is expected. If cold northern and warm southern air masses mix, the weather system could potentially be more active, with a greater possibility of precipitation in the area.

"The six-month climate model predicts an average precipitation of four to five inches from November through February," Griesinger said.

But if snow falls after the ground freezes, it won't be available to the soil until spring melt, at which time much of it will run off before the ground thaws.

Area farmers got an unexpectedly good crop this year because what little rain there was in a dry season arrived with exquisite timing at just the right time. It might happen again, or it might not, but a moisture-charged soil profile would make farmers less vulnerable to the vagaries of weather.

"Like all farmers, I know Mother Nature is still queen, and you just have to deal with the circumstances you're given," Schreurs said. "But I'd advise insurance."



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