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Paynesville Press - April 21, 2004

Drought continues, threatens new crop

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Area farmers - who suffered crop losses because of a drought last year - find themselves threatened by dry weather again as the planting season starts.

The last significant rainfall in the Paynesville area was nine months ago, in July 2003. In August 2003, the United States Department of Agriculture announced that central Minnesota was suffering from a moderate drought and declared the region a drought disaster area, a designation that allowed some area farmers to seek financial help for their crop losses last year.

Now, after a winter where snowfall levels were below normal, and with little rain falling this spring, soil moisture levels have continued to decline and threaten crops, even before many have been planted.

Soil moisture levels in central Minnesota are two to four inches below normal for 2004, according to the National Weather Service. But low soil moisture levels from last year mean the actual deficit is more like nine to 11 inches, said Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. This is a significant deficit, Seeley added.

In Minnesota, fall rains are essential to replenish soil moisture levels and the water table, said Dave Schwartz of the Kandiyohi County Extension Service. Spring rains replenish the upper layers of the soil. Moisture from snow usually adds very little to the earth, especially if the snow is dry and fluffy as it was this winter, said Schwartz.

Unfortunately, conditions are still dry, and the soils have no reserves of moisture, said Seeley. Even if rain comes soon, it would take a lot of it to replenish these reserves.

The Climate Prediction Center has predicted cooler than usual weather in May with equal chances for below normal or normal rainfall. The outlook favored normal temperatures and rainfall throughout June and July, added Seeley.

Unfortunately, to recharge the soil moisture and to refill lakes, streams, and aquifers, above normal rainfall amounts are needed, said Seeley. He hopes that the Climate Prediction Center is wrong, at least about the amount of precipitation.

Oluf Johnson, who raises soybeans, corn, and small grains on a farm south of Lake Koronis, doesn't need to be told that soil moisture levels are low. He pointed out that there is no water running in the tiles of his tiled fields and large dust whirlwinds are a frequent occurrence in the fields in his area - a sure sign of a dry summer to come, according to one of his neighbors.

Dry conditions in the spring could do significant damage to crops, because moisture is critical for proper seed germination, said Schwartz. Without adequate moisture, seeds germinate erratically. Uniform germination is important because plants need to be at the same stage of growth when fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are applied. Also, without uniformity, some plants may not be mature while others have passed their prime when it is time to harvest.

To help ensure good germination, Schwartz cautioned farmers to make a few changes in the way they plant this year: don't overtill the soil, as this could dry it out more; try to plant the same day as tilling; and don't plant seeds too deep in an effort to get closer to water reserves, as this would almost guarantee that a good portion of the seeds won't germinate. Also, farmers should plant at the same crop rates as usual, as planting fewer seeds will only result in reduced yields, even if normal rainfalls come.

Area farmers have reaped some of the benefits of a dry spring. Many have taken advantage of the dry weather by getting their crops planted early, said Schwartz. The dry soil also works up well, said Johnson who will likely begin planting soon.

If rain doesn't come soon, early planting may make a big difference at harvest time since early planted corn and small grains usually yield more, said Schwartz.

Another advantage of the dry weather is a boost in market prices for some crops. Because of low yields last year - due in part to drought and insects that thrive in dry weather - soybeans hit record prices this spring and could continue to hold strong if yield predictions for this summer's crop are low, said Dan Martens of the Stearns County Extension Service.

But high prices don't mean a lot to farmers who have no crops to sell because of the drought, said Johnson, who suffered a significant yield loss last year and is already concerned about this year's crop.

Other effects
Farmers aren't the only ones affected by the drought. Because of the lack of rain, burning restrictions have been issued in Stearns and Kandiyohi counties. Grass fires are a real danger now, said Schwartz. Farmers should pay special attention to CRP land, he added, because those acres are particularly vulnerable to fire.

Homeowners should also note that lawns, trees, perennial flowers, and edible plants (rhubarb and asparagus) are stressed from the lack of water. Lawns and trees that were already stressed from the drought last fall are starting the season under less than ideal conditions, according to Carl Hoffman, a horticulturist for the Stearns County Extension Service.

Lawns, perennials, and pine trees need water now, said Hoffman. About one inch per week - all at one time - will sustain stressed lawns and perennials while stressed evergreens need a good, long soaking. Large trees should be watched for signs of dehydration (brown leaves, wilt, etc.), as this could make them more suspectible to disease. Hoffman cautioned against fertilizing woody trees and shrubs while they are drought stressed, as this could tax the plants even more.

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