Drought hangs on in Corn Belt
In 12 years of weekly Drought Monitor assessments, we have never seen a start to October like this one—75 percent of Iowa and 97 percent of Nebraska are in Stage 3 to Stage 4 Drought— also known as “Extreme” to “Exceptional” drought.
The assessments of these two states illustrate the damage done to soil moisture profiles by the 2012 drought.
Precipitation deficits for the first three-quarters of the year are huge. Iowa fell to a 9-inch statewide precipitation deficit for the first time Oct. 4. Data compiled by Iowa State Climatologist Harry Hillaker shows the four-month period covering June, July, August and September is the third-driest in 140 years of precipitation records.
“The only two growing seasons that were drier were 1976 and 1984,” Hillaker said. The September Iowa statewide average precipitation was 1.63 inches, the lowest total since 1990.
In Nebraska, it’s much the same story. “We’re probably looking at a 12- to 14-inch moisture deficit in the northeast,” said Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher. “It’s not quite as bad elsewhere, but still around 6 to 7 inches.”
Dutcher expects Nebraska’s corn yield performance to reflect that deficit. “I think we’ll see irrigated corn yields at about 90 percent of average, but dryland (non-irrigated) less than 50 percent, and combined about 30 percent below average,” Dutcher said.
The big question is whether there is a chance of at least some soil moisture improvement during the balance of this year. Telvent DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino is not optimistic. He noted that some of the features that caused this year’s major drought have not gone away completely.
“We have a fair amount of upper-atmosphere high pressure ridging in the northern Great Basin; it’s been there since mid-September,” Palmerino said.
“You could make a case that this western ridge is this summer’s drought maker for the Midwest that moved further to the west.”
The result is a northwesterly prevailing wind pattern across the western Midwest and Northern Plains. It’s not a pattern that usually brings rainfall.
“We’re just not able to get Gulf of Mexico moisture northward,” Palmerino said. “We’ve seen some pickup in precipitation in Ohio, Indiana and central through southern Illinois. But there is enough west and north source component in the flow over the north-central U.S. that we are unable to force Gulf moisture north.”
Because of this pattern, Palmerino is reluctant to be very hopeful that the western Corn Belt will turn things around right away in drought recovery. “We clearly have developed the pattern; it’s very identifiable,” he said. “To try to break that trend that is still becoming established—I don’t see the logic in doing that.”
A northwesterly air flow and drier western Corn Belt and Northern Plains precipitation trends are in line with research on various stages of El Nino or La Nina done by Florida State University. When El Nino is in effect during winter, the Florida State study shows no more than a normal precipitation trend.
Hillaker is cautious in projecting how 2013 will begin. “Looking at other big drought years like we had this year, the tendency has been for the year following a big drought year, historically, to also be dry,” he said.
Dutcher has seen some improvement recently. Some recent rains have allowed for a good start to the hard red winter wheat crop in southwestern Nebraska, “but the reality is that we could have better rainfall and moisture return and still have problems (next year) because this year was so severe,” he said.
Dutcher does not expect this year’s drought to repeat in 2013. He pegs the chance for that occurrence at around 5 percent. As far as the Drought Monitor evaluation is concerned, Dutcher looks for modest improvement. “I’ll be happy if there is a one-category reduction in all areas” by the end of the year.
But even if drought conditions do settle down, the cutback in production will linger in farmers’ spreadsheets. “This could be a big problem for farmers, because there will be some tremendous hits on the yield forecast for insurance, which means next year, the average will decrease,” Dutcher said.
All this uncertainty keeps the market perspective bullish regarding moisture problems for next season.
“Overall, forecasts remain mostly bullish, with no margin for error,” said DTN Senior Analyst Darin Newsom. “The U.S. Corn Belt has to see better conditions this winter or things could get too tight to be maintained; in other words, the demand market falls apart.” — Bryce Anderson, DTN