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Will Midwest’s soil moisture replenish for spring planting?
Michigan Correspondent

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — People have been hoping last year’s drought concerns would evaporate along with the dry and hot spells plaguing the region, but so far precipitation seems to be falling short in some areas.

As last summer wore on, drought epicenters in the central United States converged into one large drought stretching from the West Coast to the Great Lakes states, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor’s latest Drought Overview dated Jan. 8.

“Beneficial autumn rains helped portions of the Midwest recover from drought, but dryness continued in the Plains where drought intensified,” the report stated. “By the end of 2012, three drought epicenters remained: Hawaii, the Southeast and one large area of drought stretching from the southern California coast across the West and Great Plains to the Midwest, with the worst drought conditions focused on the Plains states.”

The report goes on to state the dry weather, coupled with high spring and summer heat, depleted soil moisture and lowered stream flows in May, June, July and August.

Part of the effect came from increased “evapotranspiration” due to the high temperatures. As a result reservoir and stock pond levels were lowered. Crops and livestock were also damaged. Also, by year’s end, low river levels “threatened commerce” on the Mississippi River shipping lanes.

In its most recent Drought Update, dated Dec. 17, the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) reported rainfall from late August through October was “widespread and plentiful.” In November and early December, however, below-normal precipitation returned. As a result, recovery from the drought last year slowed as well.
Still, soil moisture, stream flows and lake levels in much of the state were “greatly improved” when compared with last summer. For water supply reservoirs, the update reports there are, no real problems.

“More precipitation is needed for improvement in the deeper soil levels, some lake levels and shallow groundwater,” the update said. “Many reservoirs have already completely refilled and, for them, the drought is effectively over. The Lake Decatur reservoir, once the poster child of the 2012 drought, has recovered to its normal winter pool level.”

But the report warns if unusually dry conditions continue with the coming spring, reservoirs could be vulnerable to drought over the summer. Still, the news was pretty good coming out of Illinois.
Most of the ISWS’ 19 sites were reporting soil moisture in the range of 30-40 percent. The update describes this as “within the expected range” for this time of year, at the 2-, 4-, 8- and 20-inch levels. The update notes all soil moisture probes are measured under sod.
In its last statewide crop and weather report of the year, the USDA was reporting for Illinois, topsoil was 5 percent “very short” and 23 percent “short.” Subsoil was 19 percent very short and 42 percent short. That report was dated Nov. 26.

The USDA reported the following soil moisture statistics in the other states in the Farm World area for that same week: for Michigan, topsoil was 6 percent very short and 13 percent short; 77 percent was adequate. For subsoil, 19 percent was very short and 23 percent short, with 57 percent adequate.

For the week ending Nov. 19, Indiana’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reported soil moisture there as 2 percent very short, 11 percent short and 80 percent adequate. That information wasn’t available for Ohio.

For Kentucky, topsoil moisture for the week ending Nov. 18 was reported as 6 percent very short, 30 percent short and 61 percent adequate. For subsoil, it was reported as 13 percent very short, 34 percent short and 51 percent adequate.

In Tennessee for that week, topsoil moisture levels were rated at 12 percent short, 85 percent adequate and 3 percent surplus. For subsoil, 5 percent was very short, 18 percent short, 75 percent adequate and 2 percent surplus.

Marty Saffel, an agricultural statistician at the NASS Michigan field office, said the soil moisture reports are not highly scientific. “It’s somewhat of a subjective survey on the part of people out in the field,” he said. “It’s meant to give people some idea of what’s going on.”

Saffel said it hasn’t snowed much in Michigan so far this winter. In Lansing, snowfall is about 20 inches below normal. But people are more concerned about the warmer than normal temperatures at this point. He said fruit growers, especially, are worried about the possibility of a repeat of last year’s devastating late winter warming followed by numerous freezes.

Reports coming out of Iowa are that precipitation is completely inadequate to recover from last summer’s drought. “If you look at Iowa, I doubt that it’s improved any since last summer,” Saffel said.

Jeff Andresen, the state climatologist for Michigan, agrees with the assertion the Western Corn Belt will not get enough moisture replenishment to make up for the drought last summer, but he said the same can’t be said for the Eastern Corn Belt.

“It’s very unusual or rare for soil moisture not to be replenished in the Eastern Corn Belt,” Andresen said. “The greatest concern is for the Western Corn Belt. We’ve also had higher than normal temperatures in the Great Plains.”

Andresen also said January-February is typically the driest period of the year, including in the Great Plains region. As for fruit growers in Michigan and their fears of a repeat of last year’s debacle, Andresen said it’s only happened once, in 1945-46. “Lightning doesn’t usually strike twice,” he noted.

But, he added there’s been a trend towards a 1- to 2-week earlier spring over the past 30 years compared with earlier periods, that does increase the risk to fruit growers.