Unpredictable April keeps meteorologists guessing

Apr 29, 2013

While not many wanted to curse the odd April weather behavior for dumping much-needed moisture, those in the midst of calving seasons were no doubt questioning Mother Nature’s timing.

Across the Rockies and Plains areas, snowfall totals for the month have hit record highs; but, along with those much needed inches of moisture, there were record temperatures, on the bottom end of the thermometer. In fact, according to records, April temperatures were the coldest in 30 years in some areas, and snowfall totals were the highest.

The heavy April snows have helped to alleviate some of the drought-stricken High Plains areas of western South Dakota, western Nebraska and many areas of eastern Wyoming and eastern Colorado. Snowpacks in Wyoming and Colorado are on the rise thanks to Mother Nature’s April twist.

While the snowpack has improved, areas across the Midwest, including Corn Belt areas, are struggling with flooding. Heavy rains have slowed planting, leaving some fields looking more like a lake than a future corn harvest ground.

But despite flooding and snowpack, many areas across the Central Plains are still in a long-term drought. Some areas have improved, leaving the EXCEPTION- AL DROUGHT category, and moving into EXTREME DROUGHT.

According to meteorologists, May should start off warmer for many as the cold April weather pattern finally breaks.

Weather highlights:

In the West, warmth continues

to expand, most notably across northern California and the Northwest. Last week’s Thursday high temperatures approached or reached 90°F as far north as California’s Sacramento Valley.

On the Plains, chilly conditions persisted, especially across the eastern Dakotas and southern portions of the region. Frost advisories were in effect on Thursday in parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. However, temperatures across the central and southern Plains were not nearly as low as those observed on Wednesday morning, when a severe, late-season freeze further threatened jointing to heading winter wheat.

In the Corn Belt, fieldwork remained at a virtual standstill due to below-normal temperatures and cool, soggy soils. Among the major Midwestern states, corn planting had advanced beyond 1 percent by April 21 only in Missouri (13 percent planted, compared to 48 percent last year and the five-year average of 29 percent). Corn planting was 1 percent complete in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio; last year, corn in Illinois was 56 percent planted by April 21.

In the south, frost advisories were in effect on Thursday from parts of Arkansas and Missouri eastward to the southern Appalachians. However, temperatures were not low enough to pose a significant threat to winter wheat, fruits, and emerged summer crops. Throughout the region, dry weather favors spring fieldwork.


A gradual warming trend will accompany a period of relatively tranquil weather. Warmer conditions will induce snow-melt flooding in the north-central U.S., including the Red River Valley. Five-day precipitation totals will be greatest from southern and eastern Texas to the southern Atlantic Coast, where rainfall could reach 1 to 3 inches.

Over the weekend and early into this week, some light precipitation will develop across the Northwest and upper Midwest. Most areas from California to the High Plains will remain dry.

The National Weather Service (NWS) 6- to 10-day outlook for April 30- May 4 calls for near to above normal temperatures and precipitation across the majority of the U.S. Cooler than normal conditions will be confined to areas from the southeastern Plains to the southern Atlantic Coast, while drier than normal weather will be limited to a region stretching from the Pacific Coast to the central High Plains.

Jack Frost continues across

Texas The damage to the wheat crop in the Panhandle, Southern Plains and Rolling Plains regions from the last bout of freezing weather was not uniform, but losses were “significant,” according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agronomist.

And further damage was expected following April 22-23 weather pattern, according to Dr. Travis Miller, AgriLife Extension agronomist and Texas A&M University soil and crop sciences associate department head.

“They were predicting 27 and 30 (degrees) in Amarillo,” he said. “That’s enough to do damage when wheat is in boot or blooming.”

Freezing weather this late is a rare phenomenon, Miller said. He noted that in his 35 years as an AgriLife Extension agronomist, he’s never seen freezes occur this late in the year.

Brad Charboneau, NWS meteorologist, Lubbock, said the late freezes this year haven’t broken the record yet, but they are “definitely abnormal.” The average last freeze date for Lubbock is April 10, and the record latest freeze was May 8 in 1938.

Generally, Miller said, irrigated wheat in the High Plains was hurt more than dryland wheat, but the damage so far has varied region to region, in some cases county to county—even field to field.

For example, Rick Auckerman, AgriLife Extension agent for Deaf Smith County, west of Amarillo, reported 20 to 50 percent damage from previous freezes with many of the tillers still in good shape.

“Two fields that I had inspected were 75 to 80 percent damaged with collapsed stems and heads dying,” Auckerman said. “These fields were thin plant stands and not irrigated well when this freeze moved in. Now with this last freeze, all bets are off, so to speak, and again we will have to wait to assess this past round of damage.”

But further north, Brad Easterling, AgriLife Extension agent for Sherman County, north of Amarillo on the Texas/ Oklahoma border, reported: “After assessing our wheat, overall don’t think the freeze damage is going to be as bad as what was first thought.”

Miller said dryland wheat farmers who had extensive damage don’t have many options.

“They get only one shot at a crop, and then they’re done due to the very dry soils,” he said. “They had a marginal crop to begin with because of the drought, but some may at least hay it or graze it.”

Irrigated wheat farmers have more options.

“Their biggest interest is to get their crop insurance adjustment as fast as they can,” Miller said. “On the irrigated fields, they still have time to plant an irrigated crop if they kill this wheat and get it off the field, and plant right into it with cotton, sunflowers, sesame, sorghum or another crop.”

Sink or swim in Indiana

Frequent and heavy rains have kept most Indiana farmers out of their fields during corn planting season so far during April, and the weather outlook for the next two weeks indicates continued wet conditions.

But that doesn’t mean yields at harvest time are in danger of dropping off yet, according to Purdue University (Purdue) climatologists.

Forecasters expect precipitation to be above normal through the first week of May, following a pattern of rain that has swelled rivers and streams and flooded fields.

“The rain over the next couple of weeks shouldn’t be as heavy as it has been, but the frequency of rewetting of topsoils is the problem,” said associate state climatologist Ken Scheeringa, based at Purdue.

As of the week ending April 21, farmers had planted just 1 percent of the state’s corn crop, compared with the five-year average of 16 percent by the same time, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported. Last year, when an unusually dry spring was a precursor to drought, farmers had 43 percent of the crop in the ground by this time.

Heavy rains and cool temperatures prevented most fieldwork last week when some areas received nearly 7 inches of rain and temperatures dropped to 21 degrees.

Temperatures finally are warming, a trend that typically would help to dry out fields so farmers could work in them. But more rain would negate that effect.

“We’re in a wet pattern that isn’t going to change in the immediate future,” Scheeringa said.

State climatologist Dev Niyogi earlier this year had said planting could be delayed because of a wetter than normal trend and that Indiana could be in for some drying in the growing season, leading to a return to mild to moderate drought conditions across the state. He said that possibility has not changed.

“We don’t have a dominant El Niño or La Niña this year, so the patterns we are seeing from wet to dry could become the highlight of the growing season,” Niyogi said.

Although Indiana farmers are two weeks behind the fiveyear average pace in planting corn, statewide statistical data suggest that planting date accounts for only 23 percent of the variability in yields from year to year, said Purdue Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen. Tillage and use of herbicides and nitrogen fertilizer are among many yieldinfluencing factors, or YIFs.

“The good news is that planting date is only one of many YIFs for corn,” Nielsen wrote in his online “Chat ’n Chew Café,” which contains crop production information compiled from universities and public websites across the U.S.

Nielsen noted that last year, 94 percent of the corn crop was planted by May 15, but it yielded 38 percent below trend, largely because of the drought—a disastrous YIF. Conversely, farmers in 2009 planted only 20 percent of the crop by that date because of wet conditions, yet their harvest was 9 percent above trend.

He said if planting delays continue, farmers still would have until mid-May to decide whether to switch to seeds that would take the crop to maturity faster.

“Let’s not succumb quite yet to fear-mongering triggered by the prospects of a delayed late start to corn planting in 2013,” Nielsen wrote. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor