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Illinois farmers: Lingering drought becomes a worry
Illinois Correspondent

EAST PEORIA, Ill. — A recent report from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Drought Response Task Force warns that extreme to severe drought conditions still persist throughout most of the northern part of the state, resulting in low stream flow, low soil moisture, and low groundwater levels.

Unless the region receives above-average rainfall into the spring farmers could again face problems in the upcoming growing season, warns University of Illinois Extension educator Robert W. Frazee of the extension’s East Peoria office.

“Many farmers in the northern one-half of Illinois have been experiencing below-normal rainfall since early last spring and are (wondering) if this dry trend would continue into the 2006 cropping year,” Frazee said. “Farmers are well aware that crop yields are heavily dependent upon available soil moisture throughout the entire growing season as well as adequate growing degrees from summer temperatures.”

Though the state received 2.81 inches of precipitation in January, or nearly an inch above average for the month, more rainfall is needed to ease the drought conditions that have persisted in the Peoria area and further north since 2005. However, the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS)’s Illinois Crop Weather Report for Feb. 5 said that milder than normal temperatures coupled with Jan.’s increased rainfall caused some grass and wheat fields to green up from dormancy.

According to the NASS report, this concerns producers because of the risk of winter kill to the crops if a hard freeze develops during February. Recent rainfall has only saturated the topsoil and many farmers’ tiles are not running. In addition, the NASS report said Illinois livestock producers are expressing concern for the short supply of hay due to the drought last year.

Frazee suggested that producers who are in potential drought stress areas in the Midwest should implement an action plan to help maximize their crop yields and net returns.

“There are a number of excellent websites where farmers can monitor the current status of the drought,” said Frazee. “To obtain the latest climatic information for locations throughout Illinois, the Water and Atmospheric Resources Monitor (WARM) program of the Illinois State Water Survey has a website ( warm/climate.asp) that provides excellent statewide maps on soil moisture, temperature, precipitation, stream flow and groundwater levels.

“In addition, the U.S. Drought Monitor website (www. drought.unl. edu/dm/monitor. html) examines changing drought conditions throughout the U.S. on a weekly basis, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website ( expert_assessment/seasonal_drought. html) provides a U.S. seasonal drought outlook through April 2006.”

Frazee said producers should keep a careful watch for the most recent soil moisture surveys in their area and on their tile drains to determine if their fields are draining excess soil moisture or retaining it, indicating a potential shortage of available moisture.

“Observe the current weather conditions in your immediate area,” Frazee said. “Listen to meteorologists as to weather trends and utilize that information by incorporating your historical weather patterns into your decision making for this spring’s cropping plans.”

Reducing the number of tillage trips to reduce soil erosion and conserve existing soil moisture supply is important, Frazee said. He suggests implementing no-till practices to maximize soil moisture conservation and minimize evaporation.

“Research has shown that no-till fields may have as much as two or three inches more available soil moisture in the topsoil layer than conventionally tilled fields,” Frazee explained. “For producers utilizing a mulch-till system, consider reducing the depth and number of tillage trips for seedbed preparation. Also, don’t work soils that are too wet. This increases compaction and restricts root development, which can be very damaging in dry seasons.”

To conserve soil moisture throughout the growing season, Frazee said producers may want to consider drilling their soybeans or planting them in narrow rows. Narrowing the rows typically achieves a crop canopy in fewer days and helps prevent soil evaporation.

To lessen financial loss due to drought, Frazee recommends producers plant both corn and soybeans due to their varying pollination and harvest periods. Other crops, such as cereal grains and grain sorghum can be considered for drier soils.

Frazee said that as late spring rains historically rejuvenate Midwest soils every season, producers shouldn’t panic yet.

“The best plan is to probably remain as flexible as possible and to adjust as the weather conditions change during the spring planting season.”