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Parts of the Midwest started out too wet for crops, but now they’re too dry

Corn grows in brown and green stalks against a blue sky. One yellow corn cob peeks out of a dry, brown husk.
Elizabeth Rembert
/
Harvest Public Media
Corn is ready for harvest near Council Bluffs, Iowa. Some fields in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois started out the growing season with too much rain, but drought conditions quickly sapped that moisture.

Dry, hot conditions have baked crops throughout most of the Midwest and Great Plains, even in places that started out the growing season with excessive rains.

Drought has deepened throughout much of the Midwest and Great Plains, but some states started out the growing season with fields that were too wet.

Earlier this spring, farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri were waiting on a break in rainfall to start planting. Months later the drought has crept east and is baking crops in those areas. It’s an unexpected twist, said Missouri state climatologist Pat Guinan.

“We were heading into the growing season with a decent amount of water,” he said. “But then June came around and the faucet turned off. And it’s persisted throughout much of the summer and into the fall. So things really took a turn for the worse.”

Mark Licht, an agronomy professor and extension agent at Iowa State University, said the rainy spring prevented timely planting but put a cushion of moisture into the ground, giving the region a buffer against dry conditions.

“We were basically starting the season with moderate soil moisture,” he said. “Those April and May rains gave us a leg up, compared to the more western part of the Corn Belt.”

Guinan said the reservoir didn’t last long in some parts of Missouri.

“It could have been much worse, much faster,” he said. “But by the time July came around, those soils were bone dry.”

Nearly 80% of Iowa and Missouri are at least abnormally dry after a summer without significant rain and record-hot days. Crops in some areas are brown and short when they should be tall and ready for harvest.

“There’s definitely some areas of Iowa where yields are going to be much lower than farmers would want them to be,” Licht said.

Trent Ford has studied the transition from moisture extremes as Illinois’ state climatologist. His research shows that the whiplash is happening more frequently as climate change pushes wet extremes even wetter.

Either extreme has an impact on crops, but Ford said moving from one end to the other has its own effect.

He pointed to Iowa’s growing conditions in 2013, which were delayed by a wet spring and then zapped by a hot, dry summer. Corn yields averaged around 164 bushels per acre, and absorbed one of the biggest negative impacts since the mid-1990s.

“Part of that was because it was very dry when we didn’t want it to be dry and very wet when we didn’t want it to be wet, and that transition caused issues for agriculture.”

Ford recommends farmers use cover crops, crop rotations and conservation grazing to protect soil and water health amid the transitions.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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