The US Midwest might not see any relief from drought conditions until late fall, according to climate specialists with the University of Missouri.
With the last significant rainfall in the Midwest in mid-May, crops, livestock and homeowners with brown grass are suffering with no immediate relief in sight.
Two University of Missouri specialists say the drought’s impact on the soil has been made worse by the previous warm winter.
“This drought actually started last August and the warm winter did not help us at all,” said Randy Miles, a professor of soil science in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
“With high temperatures and very low humidity in the fall and winter, what little water was in the soil quickly evaporated. In our current summer climate, the soil can lose up to one-quarter inch of water per day.”
Miles said that the soil is dry down to nearly five feet, which is the depth where most crops get the moisture needed to thrive.
The warm winter, with its low humidity, essentially pulled moisture from the soil that would have been available in the spring growing months. Winds and a lack of snow cover also helped evaporate soil moisture that would have been “banked” until the spring, Miles said.
“What little rain and snowfall we got wasn’t enough to allow the soil to ‘recharge’ for the spring,” Miles said.
Miles said that the Midwest is going through its driest period since 1988. While the drought could spell obvious problems for farmers, it might also put a dent in grocery shoppers’ pocketbooks in the coming months.
Miles expects food prices to rise, with products that rely on soybeans leading the way as the drought will likely affect soybeans first.
“The dry winter and current drought also can affect farmers by hurting the ‘grain fill’ of a harvest,” Miles said. “Grain fill is how heavy or full a seed or kernel becomes as it finishes growing. A lower ‘grain fill’ means more seeds or kernels are needed to make the same amount of food.”
While irrigation can help, the only real answer is to wait on Mother Nature, but the Midwest might not see any relief until late fall, said Anthony Lupo, professor and chair of atmospheric sciences.
“We’re seeing an El Nino, or warming pattern, develop in the Pacific Ocean,” Lupo said. “Right now, the odds are favoring a weaker El Nino, which would mean a colder winter and more precipitation in the Midwest. However, the current long-term forecasts are not predicting any significant rain for the rest of the summer season.”