Farm Horizons, February 2012

Outlook dry for Minnesota crops

By Jennifer Kotila

Despite the heavy rain and snowfall in the fall, winter, and spring of 2010-11, Minnesota ended 2011 in a drought.

December marked the fifth consecutive month for precipitation shortfalls for many counties in Minnesota, according to the state climatology office at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Every county in Minnesota is experiencing some level of drought, according to a US Drought Monitor report released Dec. 29. Most of Minnesota is in a moderate to severe drought, and the southern one-third of the state has seen precipitation far below historical averages since late summer.

This fall was the driest on record for a large sections of southern and western Minnesota, with precipitation totals for mid-July to early December at less than three inches. The long-term average precipitation is five to nine inches. When compared with the same period in the historical database, the 2011 precipitation totals rank among the lowest on record, according to the DNR.

Significantly dry soil conditions during fall tillage increased the concern for the soil moisture profile of the 2012 growing season. The Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service reported Nov. 7 that none of the topsoil in Minnesota showed a surplus in moisture, 29 percent had adequate moisture, 43 percent was short of moisture, and 28 percent was very short of moisture, according to the DNR.

Unless Minnesota sees significant precipitation in the late winter and early spring, farmers will face a number of drought-related issues at the beginning of the 2012 growing season, according to the DNR.

Agricultural tips for surviving drought

A drought can be devestating for livestock and crops. Alternate crops may have to be planted, or crop loss applied for.

Farmers may have to buy feed, or cull the heard if feed supplies are low. And farmers who are already facing financial hardship may face hard decisions about diversification, irrigation, surviving a major loss, or even selling the farm.

However, the Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University has offered a number of strategies farmers can use to prepare for and survive drought and minimize its impact.

Farmers can be prepared in the case of a drought by keeping accurate records of forage inventories so it is known how much feed is available for their animals at all times. An emergency plan should also be developed for alternate feed and water resources.

Good land management before a drought provides greater flexibility after a drought occurs. Farmers should maintain healthy soils, and not allow overgrazing. Evaporation of moisture from the soil can be minimized by using minimum till techniques.

Conservation practices can assist in reducing runoff, erosion, soil degradation, and enhancing infiltration of water into the soil. Farmers who may face drought should consider establishing riparian buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, and other conservation buffers along and near sources of water.

If using an irrigation system, one should be used which reduces the amount of water lost through eveaporation, percolation, and runoff. The irrigation system should be made as efficient and easy to maintain as possible. A water storage system can be built to conserve water for irrigation time, and measuring devices can assist in keeping track of water use.

Weed control is also important in times of drought. Weeds, like any plant, consume large amounts of water and can lead to reduced crop production. Most herbicides rely on water to be effective, so during drought, mechanical weed control measures may be needed.

Providing quality water sources to livestock during drought is important. Some water sources may dry out during drought, so water has to be hauled to the livestock. Dry conditions can lead to undrinkable or even toxic water sources, so water quality testing should be performed.

Providing animals which rely mostly on grazing with suplemental feeds may become necessary. Non-traditional foodstuffs may be an option, or leasing additional pasture land. Farmers can also provide supplmental minerals, vitamins, and energy sources. Animals may need to be limited to conserve reduced feed and water supplies.

Farmers who plan to feed drought-damaged crops to their livestock should be aware of issues which may occur. The protein content of forages may be reduced during drought, and dry forages are harder to digest.

Also, plant toxicities, such as nitrates and mycotoxins, are increased during drought. Harvested feed and forage should be tested for nutrient content and potential toxins prior to feeding.

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