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Yes, we’re getting a little snow this week. But because “little” is the operative word, concern continues to grow about the potential for a drought this year. 

You will have to imagine all of the pretty maps with yellows and tans and browns on them as you read this, but they are certainly becoming the focus of many farmers in Central Illinois and across the Corn Belt.

Last Thursday, when meteorologists at the University of Nebraska released their weekly report on precipitation trends across the nation, over two-thirds of the continental United States was either in an official drought category or is experiencing abnormal dryness. 

That 67 percent is double the amount at the beginnning of November, just three months ago, and the grain and cattle markets are certainly watching the dynamics resulting from the lack of rain and snow during that time.

The grain market currently is not worried about drought during the U.S. production season for 2018, but is well aware of the lack of rain in Argentina, where corn and soybean planting was reduced this year and potential yields are declining, all due to La Nina. 

That climate driver is based on cooler-than-normal temperatures of water in the Equatorial Pacific and has had an expected impact on Argentine grain production. Brazil, not so much, but the variability in rainfall has not gone unnoticed.

La Nina also has affected the United States. It is the reason for deep cold snaps, as well as reduced snowfall. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last week posted an internet report that said, technically, La Nina’s weather characteristics have impacted the western hemisphere for the second successive year. But beyond that, the weather specialists say there are greater tendencies for a drought in a second year La Nina. 

Although the sea surface temperatures are not as cold, the atmospheric conditions are stronger than in the first year of a La Nina and will have a strong influence over U.S. weather.

The primary drought conditions currently are in the lower half of the continental United States. That includes Kansas and Oklahoma, dominant states in the production of hard red winter wheat, meaning 47 percent of wheat country has been in a drought since wheat was planted last fall. 

Because corn and soybean production is concentrated further north, only 16 percent of corn production and 15 percent of soybean production would have a drought tag attached. But cattle have been pulled off diminished wheat pasture quicker than normal and sent early to feedlots, which will have a longer-term impact on meat prices.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says, at present, the drought is most acute in higher elevations of Utah and Colorado where the snowpack is at near-record lows and will have an impact on lower-than-normal water flows of rivers which are needed for irrigation in some regions and barge transportation in others.

The Midwestern Regional Climate Center reported last week that the Midwest has measured less than 75 percent of the normal snowfall to date, and that is unfriendly as soil moisture levels continue to drop. 

That is the key factor Corn Belt farmers will be watching in another six to seven weeks as they get ready for the spring planting season. The central Corn Belt has recorded a precipitation deficit of anywhere from 2 to 16 inches over the past six months.

In the central part of the United States, the primary grain transportation system is by river barges, and levels of water on the Mississippi River are nearing the point where the Army Corps of Engineers will begin to issue low water restrictions on barge operators. Those mandate loading restrictions to reduce grounding barges in the river. Such loading restrictions, along with operations in a more narrow channel, increase costs that are reflected in grain bids from river terminals all the way back to country elevators.

While low-priced grain is in abundance due to four years of above trend yields, the ability to get the grain to market further cuts farm income. And if the double-dip La Nina threatens to reverse the trends in grain production, in Argentina, and possibly this year in the United States, there is no doubt farmers will be grumbling at the weather.

Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene. In addition to his weekly column, you can view his “From The Farm” and “Harvest Heritage” reports on WCIA 3 News.




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