Across much of Minnesota, by mid-August, drought impacts were ranked “extreme” to “severe.”
And then the rains came. During the week of Aug. 18, the entire central and western two-thirds of Minnesota received between 8/10 inches and 3 inches of rain, with more in scattered locations. More rain came the week of Aug. 24 and still more is expected at the end of this week.
But how much rain is needed to recharge the soil? And did this rain arrive in time to benefit yields anywhere in Minnesota?
According to the Palmer Drought Index, much of Minnesota would require 6 to 12 inches of precipitation to end the drought.
But farmers shouldn’t hope for all of that rain in one sitting, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey said. Rather, it would be best to see that spread over the next several months, to allow for efficient percolation and soil-moisture recharge.
“It will take some time (and many events) to refill the soil profile with moisture,” Rippey said, noting that topsoil moisture will improve first, with subsoil improvements coming later as rain percolates farther into the profile.
“Soil-moisture recharge will become more efficient after the growing season ends due to diminishing demands from crops and forestland, along with lower evaporation rates,” he said. “Some agricultural impacts could linger into spring, especially where moisture recharge is incomplete or in areas where pastures have been damaged by summer’s heat and the protracted drought.”
Unfortunately, all this rain comes too late for most of this year’s corn crop. Rippey pointed to a report from the week that ended Aug. 17 that showed 33% of the crop had reached dent stage, where the kernels show a dimple in the outer edge of the grain.
“Very little mass is added to the grain after it reaches dent stage,” Rippey noted. “On the brighter side, rains coming between now and the winter freeze will help recharge soil moisture levels.”
Varied conditions across Minnesota
In interviews before last week’s rain, growers reported that crops generally were faring better in southern Minnesota than other parts of the state.
Dave Vipond, who farms in northwestern Minnesota, said he expected that just about half of his crop would be harvestable. He also said he expects to finish harvesting corn before September ends. “We usually don’t see husks opening up and the ears hanging down until well into September,” he said. “We’re a good month ahead.”
Mankato-area farmer Angela Guentzel said the meager rain her area had received before last week had been extremely timely but that her crop still wouldn’t be a bumper crop. She too was predicating an early start to the harvest.
Paul Henning, who farms near Worthington in southwestern Minnesota, had been watching the crops in some of his fields deteriorate rapidly.
“It has been maturing really quick. Too quick,” he said. “We have been watching it and if it’s not going to mature like we would like, we will probably start chopping it for silage, if there is no rain.”
Drought not only impacts the current crop. It may also may impact next year’s production, fall field work and fertilizer application, said Brad Neumann, a farmer in Redwood County. He reported that, as of Aug. 23, his area had seen about 5 inches of total rainfall for the whole growing season. “Our ten-year average annual rainfall is between 13 and 14 inches at this point in the growing season,” he said.
Challenges for irrigated farms
Even farmers whose crops are under irrigation have been challenged by the weather conditions.
Jocelyn Schlichting, who farms in Rice, Minnesota, reported that this year’s crop will be a very expensive one.
“It’s not just the electricity costs of running the irrigator, but also your repair costs go way, way up when you are using your pivots twice as much,” she said. “Our labor costs are up, and our poor guys are running ragged, just trying to keep up with everything.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the use of water for irrigation, has been monitoring the volumes on several of her family’s pivots. The number of gallons they can pump is strictly regulated, and in several of their fields, they are running up against the limits.
Schlichting said she hasn’t experienced a year like this since returning to the farm five years ago. Even her dad and grandfather have said that this year has been unprecedented, she added.
“It’s been an interesting year and I hope we never have to do it again,” she said.