Iowans fear a return to drought

Published 9:35 am Monday, July 29, 2013

DES MOINES — A return of hot, dry weather has made the Midwest’s soggy spring a distant memory, and now many farmers are wondering whether last summer’s intense drought might return, dealing corn and soybean growers yet another challenging crop year to overcome.

That concern is inching closer to reality for much of the corn-growing region as many states have experienced only spotty rain with some areas being left far too dry.

“After last year, anytime you go a while without rain, all of a sudden you have visions of that all over again,” said northwest Iowa farmer Bruce Rohwer, 61, of Paullina. “It probably is a little more trepidation than what is really necessary but by the same token it has been long enough since we’ve had a substantial rain.”

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Much of the western half of Iowa hasn’t seen a half-inch of rain in any given day in a month and in many locations 45 days.

“The precipitation gains made this spring to practically eliminate the drought condition in the state are being lost thanks to a dry June and July,” said Iowa State University agronomists in a chart posted Friday labeled “Drought Creeps Back.”

The chart is based on data from the National Drought Monitor and shows that nearly half of Iowa is once again experiencing abnormally dry conditions.

Iowa State University Agronomist Roger Elmore said the early wet, cool weather followed by another drought could damage corn plants that have not established deep enough roots to find water.

“The cooler temperatures early and wet soils reduced root growth early on, and that sets us up for more problems,” he said. “What you need in those kinds of environments when you have shallow rooting is a wet year. The drought monitor last week started creeping in and it’s more pronounced this week. That’s not good news.”

In addition, corn is in the pollination stage, which determines how large ears will grow and how many kernels develop on each ear. The plant is stressed the most at this time and needs moisture to fully develop.

“It’s a critical period of time for moisture uptake in the crop, and we are into a dry period. There’s no question,” said Ben Steffen, a dairy farmer who also grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,900 acres in southeastern Nebraska near Humboldt. “We’ve been a while without rain and our corn is certainly showing the effects of dry conditions.”

He said southeast Nebraska received rain in May that helped recharge dry soil, but it’s becoming depleted without significant rainfall in the past month.

Further west conditions are worse, he said.

Elmore points out portions of Iowa have seen some rain and it has helped. North-central and east-central Iowa received rain Thursday night and around 4 inches of rain in central and north-central Iowa on Monday. That was likely enough to improve conditions for that area, but the rain came in thunderstorms with high wind and hail that was as destructive as the moisture was helpful, he said.

The latest drought monitor released Thursday covering the week that ended Tuesday July 23 indicated the drought area is spreading larger again. The monitor is compiled by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It measures the intensity of drought on a scale ranging from abnormally dry to moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional.

Abnormally dry conditions have spread eastward further into southern Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have more serious drought conditions. Portions of Arkansas also have advanced to a severe drought.

Rain also seems to have missed southeastern Indiana, which is now listed in the abnormally dry category after the entire state had been lifted out of drought conditions.

Abnormally dry conditions also expanded in the northern Kansas and exceptional drought in the western part of the state expanded.

Drought regions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah shrunk with several inches of rain in some areas, but the drought is far from over in the Southwest, with 80 percent of the topsoil short or very short of moisture in Colorado and New Mexico.

The abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions expanded in northern Idaho and western Montana and extreme drought expanded into southwestern Wyoming.