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Planning for continued drought

Although the harvest was actually better than expected, continuing drought and a depleted soil profile are cause for concern for next year

October 11, 2012
By Steve Browne , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Area farmers fared better than feared this year with an early harvest and better yields than expected under drought conditions the National Weather Service classifies as "severe" to "extreme."

"It raised a pretty good crop, not optimum by any means, but respectable," said Jamie Thomazin, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service. "But now the soil profile is dry with very little moisture."

Soil profile is defined as the crop root zone, the depth of topsoil where crops can utilize the soil moisture in this region, about the top 6 to 7 feet of soil.

"Last year we were in the same situation this time of year, but we got timely rains," Thomazin said. "But if we don't get significant snowfall or rains by this spring again, we're looking at drought conditions."

Now farmers have to plan for the possibility drought conditions might continue through next spring's planting season.

Soil moisture conditions affect farmers' choice of seed, how dense to plant seed, tillage practices and fertilizer application.

"It's an ongoing process throughout the year," said Marlin Pieske, seed manager for agricultural service company CHS Inc., Marshall office. "They get the fields harvested and are already planning what to plant."

CHS sells seed from four different companies, some of which offer drought-tolerant corn. Farmers consult with field marketers who know specific field conditions and can recommend which varieties of seed withstand low soil moisture best, and optimum plant populations, so too many plants don't compete for too little moisture.

"They can recommend the right variety depending on what the farmer wants," Pieske said, "grain, silage, or for the ethanol market."

Local soils tend to be heavy with a high clay content that need to be opened up through tillage to accept moisture, but if no rains come, or a heavy rain falls on dry soil, they become prone to erosion.

"I would suggest light tillage if any," Thomazin said. "I'd avoid moldboard plowing. Last year we had a heavy rain after tillage and it washed off a lot of our valuable topsoil. With local soils you want to leave about 50 to 60 percent plant residue on top to protect it, and moldboard plows it under."

Thomazin cautioned that after an early harvest it is important not to do heavy tillage or fertilizer application too early.

"Nitrogen volatizes at more than 50 degrees," Thomazin said. "If you apply too early you lose too much. Don't apply until the temperature is less than 50 degrees at six inches depth consistently."

In addition, dry soil conditions inhibit plants' ability to take up essential soil nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen and sulfur.

"When the soil is dry, microbial activity is inhibited," said Paulo Pagliari, Extension and soil scientist with the University of Minnesota Southwest research and Outreach Center in Lamberton. "The bacteria convert organic nitrogen, potassium and sulfur into inorganic forms. Plants can only take up the inorganic form. And if you don't have any water in the soil, you're not going to get any potassium because it needs to be in solution."

Generally with heavy soils, minimum tillage and a greater distance between plants is recommended if current conditions persist.

"If the drought continues three to five years, we'll have to look at plant populations and adjust accordingly," Thomazin said.



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