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Drought impacts planting decisions
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The drought monitor report as of Tuesday, April 1, indicates continued expansion of exceptional drought further east and along the southern counties. In essence, no all of Stafford, Barton, Pawnee and most of Rice and Ellsworth Counties. The six to ten-day outlook (April 19 to 23) indicates a 50 to 60% chance of leaning to above normal temperatures and near normal precipitation. The eight to fourteen-day outlook (April 21 to 27) indicates a 40 to 50% chance of leaning to above normal temperatures and near normal precipitation. Near normal isn’t much but a great deal more than we’ve had lately. Before today’s topic, the outlook for April through June indicates at least a 33% to 40% chance of above normal temperatures and no clear outlook for precipitation. Normal precipitation would be approximately seven inches for may through June. For July through September it’s the same outlook as for April through June. This is just a long-range outlook and patterns can change such as going from neutral to the start of an El Nino.

Today, with the current weather pattern that we are in and with the short and long-range outlook, what are possible choices for spring planting. Keeping in mind the natural variation in soil type and soil moisture, as we are in exceptional drought there is essentially almost no subsoil moisture and overall very little to no available topsoil moisture in many places. Normally from January 1 until now we should have received approximately 6.5 to 7 inches of liquid precipitation and have received only a fraction of that. Even with normal precipitation from now through September we would expect around 16 to 17 inches of rainfall. Would that be enough to produce an economically viable corn or another crop? Maybe. The outlook is for normal precipitation; however, the term outlook is for above normal temperatures. This means increased water demand. Even under irrigation, without subsoil moisture, most water allocations would be strained to produce a good corn crop. Are there options? Yes, but all depend on more meaningful and above average rainfall to work. And producers need to plant something.

It’s corn planting time but you don’t “dust in” corn. If it does start to rain and you feel lucky, you can plant dryland corn even through early June but a much shorter season hybrid would be needed. Corn currently is the worst option from a cropping and an expense standpoint.

There is a much wider window for a milo crop, it’s cheaper, and certainly more drought/heat tolerant. But even milo needs moisture. Again, a shorter season hybrid with less vegetative growth makes the most sense. For marketability, and without heavy bird pressure, a cream or yellow sorghum is the best option for several reasons. Soybeans also have a wide planting window, are indeterminant, and their peak water usage is later in the growing season. If rainfall returns to normal that gives them an edge, however small. Finally, if a producer is set up for it or can afford to hire it out, feed crops for hay and/or silage may be the best option. Feed prices are high and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Limited rainfall suits them (sudan grass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, etc.) best as you aren’t concerned with seed production.

Under irrigation, it might still be wise to switch to an earlier corn hybrid or even to milo. It depends on the water allocation and the quality of the water. Finally, these decisions become even harder south of the river on sandier soils. As of today, there really aren’t any good options except to pray for substantial rainfall. 

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207, or