Soil in need of moisture

Kim Fundingsland/MDN A light layer of snow covers ground that is in need of soil moisture. Much of the state, particularly western North Dakota, is deficient in soil moisture.

Soil moisture is minimal throughout much of the Minot region, courtesy of the lingering effects of a very dry 2017. Rainfall averaged only about half of normal last year in many areas.

Even though crop production last year was better than expected in many fields, producers looking ahead to 2018 planting are understandably a bit anxious knowing that soil moisture conditions are sketchy at best throughout much of the region. The lingering effects of generally dry conditions last fall has many producers wondering about there chances of growing a successful crop in 2018.

“We’re definitely drier going into 2018 than what we’ve experienced in recent years,” said Ryan Peterson, Vision Research Park in Berthold. “We’re drier than last year, probably the driest in about 10 years.”

In comparison to other years, there’s very little snow cover on the landscape so far this winter, at least by North Dakota standards. However, snowpack doesn’t always make a significant contribution to soil moisture. Often snowmelt occurs while the ground is still frozen and only a fraction of moisture in the snow finds its way into the soil.

Farmers know there are no guarantees when it comes to replenishing soil moisture, whether it be by snowmelt or spring rainfall. They also know that dry conditions that has them scratching their heads can be reversed in a day or two.

“Absolutely! A two or three inch rain in April or May can change things dramatically,” said Peterson. “You have to remain optimistic. If you plan for a disaster you are going to get one.”

Steve Erdman, Dakota Agronomy Partners, said it’s never good to go into freeze-up without good subsoil moisture but knows that conditions can change in a few days.

“It’s too early to worry about drought because we know how we can get big snows in February and March,” said Erdman.

The “D” word was used extensively to describe much of North Dakota, particularly central and western parts of the state, in 2017.

“Some guys are saying maybe they won’t plant corn this year because corn needs a little more moisture,” said Erdman. “They say the soil profile might not be adequate. If we don’t get snow and adequate April and May rains there may be nothing for crops to go on in June and July. That’s always in the back of producer’s minds.”

“What we have now is just cold, dry dirt,” said Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck. “There’s not enough moisture in the top few inches to even freeze the dirt. That means we’re going to be really short of moisture come spring.”

There are variables, though, such as location and both winter snowfall and spring rains. However, says Schlag, most areas are in need of a big boost in moisture to significantly improve soil moisture conditions.

“The moisture deficit now is really high,” said Schlag. “We’re going to need maybe two to three inches of water to satisfy soil moisture deficiency. That’s a pretty good rainstorm in March.”

Last year’s soil moisture conditions were rated adequate or better in many areas of the state heading into planting season. Much of the moisture was attributed to a series of memorable snowstorms that contributed to the snowpack. The moist soil proved very beneficial to crops, especially those planted early.

“Early planted crops did real well as they consumed all that moisture in May and the early part of June,” said Schlag. “The late planted crops didn’t do so well. Regrettably, this looks an awful lot like last year with one difference. We don’t have the snow on the ground like we did from those two storms a year ago on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Planting season is still a few months away, meaning producers can monitor the weather and soil moisture conditions before deciding on what crop to plant. A dry summer would make it difficult for full development of most row crops. If conditions remain dry at planting time some producers may opt to go with more historic North Dakota crops – small grains and wheat. Those crops mimic natural vegetation that has thrived for thousands of years on the Dakota prairie.