Two months ago, local farmers were singing praises of the clear skies. The absence of stormy weather created ideal soil moisture conditions for planting seeds. But now growers are praying for rain as an extended drought threatens to take its toll on crops.
As of June 24, 75% of the state of Minnesota was in a drought and 14% of the area was in a severe drought. While southern Minnesota experienced showers in late June and heavier rains on June 28, the region will need a few more inches of rain this summer before the drought can end.
The extended drought marks one of the state’s driest summers in recent memory. Just one year ago, 17% of the state was experiencing a drought. The hot and dry weather isn’t just plaguing Minnesota. A historic heat wave had gripped the western United states in an exceptional drought while neighboring Midwestern states North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin are suffering an extended drought as well.
For local farmers, the dry heat threatens to place a great deal of stress on their crops. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, just 24% of topsoil has an adequate level of moisture, while 75% is either short or very short on moisture. This time last year, 71% of topsoil was adequate and just 11% was short on moisture.
The drought is already taking its toll on crop conditions. In just one week, the amount of corn in good or excellent condition fell from 50% to 43%, according to the DNR. Good soybean conditions also declined from 53% to 45%. At the beginning of the month, 76% of corn and soybeans were in good condition.
“Going in, conditions were excellent. We had really timely rain right after everything got planted. Starting off, it’s generally OK to have a drought, because that really promotes that root growth right away,” said Angela Guentzel, a Kasota farmer and board member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “But now, lately, it’s been an excessive drought. The corn, especially in our area, has shown a lot of stress.”
But if Minnesotans are fortunate enough to see more rain on the horizon, farmers could recover their yields. Drought stress typically does not significantly reduce yield early on in corn’s growth stages. Corn really feels the heat when it enters its tasseling, silking and pollinating stages. Soybeans are also highly resilient to drought stress in early reproductive growth.
“Once we get to that area where the corn is indicating it’s ready to pollinate, that’s when we’re going to feel the big yield impacts,” said Shane Bugeja with the Le Sueur County University of Minnesota Extension Office. “Right now, we’re kind of in the caution zone. Some fields are going to do better than other fields.”
Those with the best chances at thriving in drought conditions are fields where crops have access to moisture deeper in the earth. But those reserves can only last for so long, noted Bugeja.
Like topsoil, subsoil has been drying out fast. As of June 27, 31% of subsoil in the state has adequate or surplus levels of moisture and 69% is short or very short on supply.
Droughts can be especially difficult, said Bugeja, because unlike pests and diseases, a farmer can’t go into the field and solve the problem. Without an irrigation system, many simply have to hope for more rain to come.
Guentzel described the recent rain as a turning point for the corn on the Guentzel Family Farm, where she and her family raise corn as well as run a seed company and produce microbial products. The Kasota farmer said those microbial products have stimulated deeper root growth in her corn, allowing the corn a better chance at accessing subsoil water and thriving under drought stress.
“We’re really grateful for the rain we did just get,” said Guentzel. “The corn — it made a drastic difference. I don’t think in our area the drought conditions would be considered severe yet, but you could definitely tell the signs of stress in the plant. With the last couple of rains there’s been a dramatic difference. So we’re optimistic that we’ve gotten that, granted we’re not out of the woods.”