The United States will close out March under a particularly active weather pattern, and the associated rainfall will be welcomed by many farmers across the country. But not everyone is cheering the downpours.
Over the next two weeks, almost the whole country is likely to experience above-average precipitation, according to forecast models as of midday Tuesday. This comes on the heels of an extremely dry February and early March for many of the grain and oilseed producing states.
Strong, dominant flow in the upper atmosphere will help spin up and transport several rounds of low-pressure systems across the United States. These storms could be associated with high daily rainfall amounts that could regulate the soil moisture in several spots where it is lacking, particularly in the Southern Plains.
The rain should be positive for winter wheat as it enters the most sensitive stage of its growing season. And while many corn and soybean farmers will be relieved to add some much-needed moisture to their fields, those with enough moisture already will be much less enthusiastic.
Welcome Rains in Heartland
Both the U.S. Drought Monitor – a government-sponsored tracker of drought conditions – and the recent wildfires might suggest that the heavy winter wheat-producing Southern Plains has the most immediate need for abundant rainfall.
This may be true, but several states to the east of the hard red wheat belt are also moisture-deficient as the corn and soybean planting season begins, which could cause problems down the road if not remedied.
In the Southern Plains, where winter wheat has emerged from dormancy, the situation may not be as bad as it seems. Condition ratings suggest the current wheat crop is unlikely to mimic the bin-busting yields of 2016, but it could still prove respectable should the short-term rainfall outlook materialize.
Spring rains tend to make or break winter wheat, even when tough weather and lower condition scores have been a theme throughout the season.
In top-producer Kansas, some 38 percent of the wheat is rated in good or excellent condition, down from 57 percent a year ago. This score has dropped 6 percent in the last three weeks due to the warm, windy, bone-dry conditions across the state, so the upcoming wet pattern could not be arriving at a better time.
Farther east, soil moisture is currently among the lowest values for this time of year in at least four decades in Missouri and Arkansas, which grow 10 percent of the United States’ soybeans and 5 percent of its corn.
In fact, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, provided by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, suggests that the overall moisture deficiencies in the Delta states and surrounding areas are relatively worse than in most of Kansas.
Even a couple of districts in southern Iowa and western Illinois are about as dry as the Delta, so a few rounds of good rainfall for the two main corn and soybean states will place farmers in a good position to start planting next month.
Corn planting in southern and Delta states has already begun and the soybean effort there will start in full force next month. As long as there are some breaks in between storms, sowing should not be significantly hampered and the additional moisture should only help the situation.
The Southeast has also grappled with drought conditions over recent months and although not a primary producer of grains and oilseeds, the region is the one spot in the country that looks like it could possibly miss out on the rains in the coming weeks.
Northern Corn Belt on Alert
Soils in the Upper Midwest have been wet ever since the end of last year’s corn and soybean harvest, so the forecast for even more rain with just about a month to go until this year’s planting begins is not the most ideal.
According to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, southern Minnesota, northern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin are in the highest levels of soil saturation. These districts are among the most productive in the nation when it comes to corn and soybeans.
Not only do wet field conditions make it difficult for farmers to maneuver planting equipment, but excessive moisture coming off of winter makes it difficult to regulate the soil temperature to appropriate levels for planting and germination, which is why wet spring weather often leads to delays.
Northeastern North Dakota – another very productive agricultural district – is also under the wettest conditions on CPC’s scale and the majority of cropland from the eastern Dakotas clear across to Michigan is classified as very moist. The Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan combined for 25 percent of both U.S. corn and soybean production in 2016.
CPC predicted earlier this month that the wet trend will continue through the springtime for most of these same areas in its latest seasonal outlook. If severe enough, rains could delay and possibly reduce the planting of corn in the Northern United States, and if it lasts into early summer, soybean acres as well as yields of both crops could suffer also.
Outside of grains and oilseeds, central California farmers – who could not seem to buy a raindrop not too long ago – have now seen too much of a good thing.
Last March, soil moisture in California’s agriculture belt was close to average, a significant improvement from the record-low levels of March 2014, when the state was deep in a severe, multiyear drought.
But now, moisture stands just shy of record-high, and the likely continuation of the rainy pattern could soon be felt by everyday U.S. consumers.
The fertile valleys of central California produce a large proportion of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States, including lettuce, spinach, broccoli and strawberries. After recent heavy rainfalls disrupted field work, the prices of these items could rise unless the weather situation returns to normal.