By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN “We’re still short. We’re going to need rain,” Delano farmer Denny Muckenhirn commented Tuesday morning.
He was referring to the upcoming planting season, and whether there will be enough moisture to produce a healthy crop.
The recent snowfall will help, but it doesn’t guarantee moist fields.
The National Snow & Ice Data Center reports that 10 inches of fresh snow can contain as little as .10 inches of water and as much as 4 inches of water, depending on crystal structure, wind speed, temperature, and other factors.
“Typically, the moisture we get in December through February is not as important as spring, because the ground is still frozen,” Kevin Dahlman of Dahlco Seeds in Cokato said.
On average, only 15 percent of winter precipitation enters the soil moisture profile, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Dahlman said he’s hoping for a “wet, miserable March and April,” but jokingly added that he should be careful what he wishes for, however.
Last August, he remembers thinking, “boy, I wish it would stop raining.”
He got more than he bargained for with that one.
After a downpour of 1.24 inches Aug. 16, 2011 in Wright County, rainfall became scarce.
From Aug. 17, 2011 through Feb. 24, 2012, the Twin Cities area only received 3.23 inches of precipitation. The average precipitation for August through February is 13.62 inches, according to Midwestern Regional Climate Center data from 1971-2000.
“It’s safe to say, it was one of the driest falls on record,” University of Minnesota Extension Educator Nathan Winter said.
The 1988 drought
For Muckenhirn, who has been farming his entire life, this isn’t the first drought he’s encountered.
“The summer of ’88 was awfully dry and hot,” he said. “I was milking cows that year.”
Muckenhirn no longer does dairy, but still has beef cattle and about 250 acres of soybeans, corn, and hay.
“Every year is a different challenge,” he said.
According to a 1989 report from the Minnesota DNR, the 1988 drought contributed to a dramatic decrease in crop production compared to previous years. Average corn yields, for example, were 72 bushels per acre, compared to 122 bushels per acre in 1987.
The drought started with a particularly warm and dry winter in 1986-87, followed by a dry spring and normal to somewhat below normal precipitation in the summer. By late fall, the drought intensity was considered “moderate to severe.”
When the spring of 1988 failed to recharge the soil, the drought intensified, especially through west central and central Minnesota. Precipitation gradually returned to normal throughout the fall of 1988, but it was too late for most of the agriculture production.
Extra thirsty ground
So far this year, the US Drought Monitor has classified most of Minnesota as having “moderate” drought conditions.
In the southern part of the state, the drought is considered “severe.”
Although climate outlooks favor more rain than normal this spring, it might not be enough.
“Many areas are so deficient in stored soil moisture they will need 150 to 200 percent of normal rainfall during March and April to make up the difference,” climatologist Mark Seeley stated in mid-February.
The odds of getting this amount of rain (about 6 to 8 inches) during those two months is only about 1 in 5, however.
A drought’s silver lining
Local farmers point out that having a drought in the winter months has its advantages.
According to Winter, the lack of snow in December and January enabled farmers to tackle construction projects, such as machine sheds and grain bins.
“It’s less work to do chores,” Muckenhirn added.
With about 40 years of farming experience, Greg Bakeberg of rural Howard Lake has been through almost every possible weather scenario.
“We’ve had winters like this before,” he said. “If we get enough rainfall this spring, we’ll be OK.”
Bakeberg has a “go with the flow” attitude when it comes to the weather.
“It takes care of itself,” he said. “Somebody else upstairs is in charge, anyhow.”
Dalhman expressed a similar viewpoint, explaining that this spring could turn out excessively dry, sopping wet, or perfectly in-between.
“We worry about things we can control, and rain isn’t one of them,” he said. “It can turn real fast. If we get one 4-inch rain around Easter, that can carry us a long way.”