Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

December 6, 2012

Dry weather could doom spring crops

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News


Farmers never really stop worrying, But a dry November is making area farmers wonder whether they will have enough moisture to grow decent crops next year.

"Sometime between now and mid-April we need enough precipitation to build our soil moisture back to its field capacity," said Robert Bellm, University of Illinois Extension educator at the Brownstown Research Station.

Statewide average precipitation for November was only 1.26 inches - 2.21 inches below normal - according to the Illinois State Water Survey. State climatologist Jim Angel said this November was the 17th driest since the state began keeping records in 1895.

Angel said near-normal precipitation is critical for farmers to recover from the drought that plagued the state this year.

"We will need close to normal precipitation in the winter months to continue to close the gap on soil moisture, as well as surface and groundwater supplies," Angel said.

Bellm said a dry winter won't doom the 2013 growing season, if there is sufficient rainfall during the growing season.

But Bellm said that's a big if.

"That almost never happens," he said. "We generally have to have enough precipitation in the winter to have enough water stored up to make it last."

Natural processes of evaporation and transpiration during the growing season make winter rains even more critical, Bellm said.

Evaporation causes the loss of water from the soil surface, while transpiration is water loss through plant leaves.

Effingham County Farm Bureau manager Julie Stephens said area farmers are always concerned about soil conditions. But Stephens said this year's drought makes the concern even more palpable than usual.

"With the dry summer, there's still concern that moisture levels will be below adequate," Stephens said.

Rural Dieterich farmer John Beckman said farmers in this area don't have the same luxuries that farmers further north do. Farmers north of an imaginary line roughly corresponding to the Coles-Cumberland county line are blessed with several feet of rich, black topsoil left over when glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age.

"That glacier needed to come 50 miles farther south," Beckman said.

But it didn't. Consequently, soil in the Effingham area consists of about six to 10 inches of topsoil on top of clay.

That's why, Beckman said, rain is so important to farming success.

"We're dependent on rain throughout the year," he said. "People north of us tile their soil to divert excess moisture into ditches, because they have a lot of moisture in their topsoil.

"But we don't have that option."

Beckman, who raises hogs on his land in the Bishop Creek community, said dry conditions can also affect livestock production. The drought caused water levels to drop in farm ponds throughout the area. "Several guys might run short on water for their livestock," he said.

Shumway-area farmer David Lagerhausen said the area needs normal winter precipitation, adding it would be even better if some of that moisture came in the form of snow.

"We need the snow cover for our wheat," Lagerhausen said. "The wheat is more likely to die if there is no snow to insulate it."

Wheat is planted in late summer, but lies dormant all winter before maturing in the spring.

Lagerhausen said last year's relatively dry winter made this summer's drought even worse.

"You have to recharge the topsoil at some point," he said. "A dry winter lowers the water table."

Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com.