Two-year drought still causing problems for Missouri farmers

Friday, March 14, 2014 | 5:35 p.m. CDT; updated 12:00 a.m. CDT, Saturday, March 15, 2014

COLUMBIA — The amount of snowfall in Missouri this winter was enough to shut down public schools and even universities for multiple days, but it was not enough to help alleviate a two-year drought in the state.

Randall Miles, MU researcher and soil science professor, said the lack of ground moisture could cause problems for farmers if Missouri doesn't receive average or above-average rainfall this spring. 

"Most years we rely on previous years' (water) storage, but this year we don't have enough stored," Miles said. "Anytime we can store rain (in the ground), that's better."

It's called "soil moisture recharge" when rain and snow melt from the surface into the ground. Recharge happens best when there is gradual precipitation, in contrast with the heavy doses of isolated snowfall Missouri received in January and February.

In addition, the total amount of snowfall was actually lower than in previous years, and the cold weather kept the moisture from soaking into the ground as much as needed. 

Columbia Regional Airport received a total of 17.8 inches of snow from Dec. 1 to March 14. A total of 25 inches of snow fell at the airport during the same period in the previous year, according to the National Weather Service in St. Louis.

"We really haven't had that much snow," Miles said. "It just seems that way because it stayed there because of the cold temperatures."

At the end of February, Missouri was six-tenths of an inch above normal snowfall amounts, but the winter has been the 10th coldest on record, with an average temperature of 26.7 degrees, said Mark Britt of the National Weather Service. 

It also tied for 10th for most days where high temperatures were less than 32 degrees, with 38 days below the freezing mark. 

Miles said the consequences of the winter weather and drought conditions vary in severity across the state. Mid-Missouri along with the western and northwestern regions of the state are the driest, while the eastern region has not been as badly impacted.

An indication that precipitation has been lower than normal can be seen in the bodies of water in the area. Miles said the water levels of local lakes, streams and ponds are lower than they normally would be this time of year. 

For farmers, soil conditions are a balancing act. While more rain is necessary to revive the soil in the long term, farmers need the ground to be dry before they can begin planting. 

"(Farmers will plant) whenever the surface soil gets dry enough and it gets warm enough," Miles said. "That's a conundrum right there."

While current soil conditions are problematic for planting this year, the outlook could change depending on the amount of precipitation the area receives this spring.

The National Weather Service has predicted that the southeast region of Missouri will receive an above-average amount of precipitation, while the rest of the state has equal chances for above, below or normal amounts of precipitation. 

Until the rain falls, farmers will have to practice patience.

Miles said it takes steady, consistent rain to improve the soil conditions. "(The water) just does not go there (in the ground) overnight," he said. "It's not something that is quick to happen."

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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