Handling Dry Conditions


Dry Soil

In 2023, Ohio experienced the 6th driest May since the 1930’s Dust Bowl. The combination of cool May weather and mostly dry soil conditions delayed crop germination and has reduced crop growing conditions. Crops are already struggling to grow.

Several factors are contributing to this dilemma. First, the switch from a La Nina weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean to an El Nino usually means drier weather conditions in the Midwest. When La Nina’s are strong and long, you can expect a stronger El Nino pattern. El Nino’s may last 1-3 years on average. Most weather experts expected drier conditions in late summer and early fall, but dry weather came earlier than expected!

Second, along with weather patterns, solar sunspot activity is at a higher intensity. Solar sunspots normally peak about every 11 years with a solar sunspot peak expected in 2025. The last few solar sunspot activity cycles have been mild to average, but the sunspot intensity is much higher this time around. There is a higher probability of adverse weather especially drier conditions for the next several years if this continues. Not real good news for farmers.

When it is this dry this early in the growing season, what can a farmer do? First, try to terminate cover crops and weeds as early as possible to save moisture. Second, avoid tillage. Every tillage pass evaporates .5-1.0 acre-inch of moisture from the soil. Excess tillage turns soil to dust which can be lost by wind erosion. Also, when it finally rains, the soil will turn to concrete, crusting over and reducing water infiltration. During dry periods on bare soils, it may take .75 of rain until the water surface tension on soils is reduced enough to let the water infiltrate. Soil crusting and soil compaction leads to water runs off.

Is their anything else a farmer can do? If you no-till, surface residue is beneficial for reducing soil temperatures. A thermometer on bare soil recorded 135˚F when the air temperature was 90˚F last week and one inch down 100˚F. Residue helps keep the soil cooler (82˚F one inch down) and reduces water evaporation.

If a farmer is doing no-till with cover crops, should they leave the residue standing or roll it down? Getting the crop residue on the soil surface is beneficial, by reducing soil temperature, and conserving moisture; plus as the residue breaks down, it releases nutrients to nearby plant roots. On rye, most of the beneficial allelopathic effects (natural herbicide) comes from decaying stems and leaves, reducing weed pressure.

Crop insurance on cover crops is becoming an issue for some farmers. The government has promoted cover crops to reduce erosion, increase soil conservation, and improve soil management. In 2022, the Pandemic Cover Crop Program (PCCP) gave a crop insurance premium to farmers using no-till and cover crops. The rules though are quite confusing to both farmers and crop insurance agents.

East of the Mississippi River, conditions are generally more humid and most years excess water at planting is an issue. RMA & NRCS cover crop termination rules state that Ohio farmers should “Terminate cover crops before crop emergence.” However, under additional guidance it states that “1. If the cover crop is part of a no-till system, termination may be delayed up to 7 days from the zone-based termination maps.” However, RMA further staters: “4. If the season is drier than normal nearing cover crop termination time, consider an earlier termination to conserve soil moisture.” That makes sense but weather is so unpredictable, it very hard for anyone to make that determination with certainty.

RMA rules states in a wet year “5.If the spring season is wetter than normal at cover crop termination time, consider a later termination to use excess soil moisture, increase infiltration of additional rain, and improve soil health and seedbed condition.” Since these rules are so general, who decides what is a wetter or drier year than normal??? If you are like me, I am confused.

Many crop insurance agents may ask farmers to justify their “good farming practices”. Good Farming practices is an RMA term defined as “ The production methods utilized to produce the insured crop and allow it to make normal progress toward maturity...which are those generally recognized by agricultural experts... depending on the practice, for the area.” To avoid problems, keep good records on planting dates and termination dates, especially for grain and cover crops. Also document how deep you planted, and general weather conditions if possible. Farmers should be insured if they follow the rules, but you may have to verify your actions. Expect another crazy year! My best advice, pray for beneficial rains!