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Midwestern farmers face mix of dry, wet conditions

Dry - wet planting conditions
Weather outlook map

In a pattern similar to last spring, farmers in the western Corn Belt could use some precipitation, while those to the east could use some drier soils. The map shows precipitation totals for Feb. 15 through March 16. 

As farmers head to the fields to plant their crops this spring, they face the same troubling weather conditions that were present in 2021. If only Mother Nature will turn stress into success again this year.

“It’s very similar to last year,” said Jody Lawrence of Strategic Trading Advisors, a grain marketing and weather consulting firm.

Farmers in the western Corn Belt could use some precipitation, while those to the east could use some drier soils.

“It’s overly dry in the western Corn Belt,” Lawrence said. “The guys I’ve talked to in eastern Nebraska, it’s even drier there coming out of last winter, so they’ve got some real concerns. The eastern Corn Belt is in good shape, though like last year, it’s overly wet.”

He defines the dividing line between the western and eastern belt around Des Moines.

Unfortunately, forecasts don’t hold much hope that conditions will improve for soils before planting. A March 17 report by the Climate Prediction Center indicated above-normal chances of increased precipitation in eastern regions of the Midwest, many of which have been inundated with spring rainfall.

The same report offered only an even chance of higher or lower than normal precipitation in regions that have been unusually dry.

“We see a bull’s-eye over an area that’s already wet to stay wet,” said Melissa Widhalm, a meteorologist with the Midwest Regional Climate Center. “We’re going to have to wait and see if the soils can dry out a little.”

Equally concerning is the dryness of soils in western Iowa, especially southwestern counties.

“Soil moisture and rainfall are both on the dry side and have been staying that way all winter,” Widhalm said. “Now as we’re getting into the growing season, there is a concern because we’ll be starting off our growing season dry, and that’s not how you want to start it in the Midwest.”

A La Niña is in effect, which has implications for growing conditions in the Midwest.

“Typically, that means a cooler, wetter spring for the eastern Corn Belt and a drier spring for the western Corn Belt,” Lawrence said. “Missouri, eastern Iowa and Illinois are in pretty good shape. Since we’re in a classic La Niña, I would expect the eastern Corn Belt to remain wet through the spring. Whether it’s cool and wet, I have not seen a forecast where I would trust any of that.”

Widhalm agrees conditions in late winter are similar to those present in 2021. But they vary in intensity.

“There’s a big difference compared to last year just how wet we are,” she said. “If you compare this year to last year, particularly for Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, we are much wetter. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be bad things, but it’s one thing that’s different.”

The same can be said for the flip side.

“The guys I’ve talked to in eastern Nebraska say it’s even drier there coming out of last winter, so they’ve got some real concerns,” Lawrence said. “Right now, the eastern Corn Belt is in good shape. It’s the same as last year — overly wet. ... It’s certainly not ideal.”

The Climate Center does predict a better-than-average chance that temperatures will be above normal for most of the Midwest. That could help dry out saturated soils in the eastern part of the region, though that area is in a greater chance of receiving more precipitation.

“There’s not much frozen soil anymore,” Widhalm said. “Stream flows are running high, and there’s an above-normal risk of flooding across the Ohio Valley area.”

Farmers can only hope that the ideal conditions that set in in 2021 will be repeated this year.

“It dried off when it needed to and it rained timely, especially in the western Corn Belt,” Lawrence said. “We almost have to repeat last year just to keep up with demand, so that will be interesting.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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