OMAHA (DTN) -- William Shakespeare was not thinking of drought when he wrote the line "Now is the winter of our discontent" in Richard III, but limited precipitation this fall and winter in the Western Corn Belt (states west of the Mississippi River) is worrisome. The 2012 drought -- which reached historic proportions -- has depleted soil moisture supplies across this portion of the Corn Belt.
"2007 through 2011 were above-normal years for moisture in Nebraska and the central U.S.," said Mike Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center. "So, that gave us a little buffer for 2012. But then it was so dry, with record dryness in Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado, that for 2013, all of those systems -- soil moisture, reservoirs, stream flow -- all those are low. So, we do not have any margin as we go into 2013."
A big source of concern for Western Corn Belt areas is that the fall season brought very little moisture. September was mostly dry in this region, and October through December brought no more than normal precipitation. This is for a time period when typical normal amounts are lower than other seasons.
"Prospects for next spring are worse than I would have thought a few months back," said Iowa state ag climatologist Harry Hillaker. "In past (drought) years, September brought good (moisture) recovery, but not this year. It was a pretty disappointing fall season. Things are certainly worse than we would have hoped."
Such a lackluster scenario, especially in a portion of the Corn Belt which has seen some big jumps in corn acreage, could lead to a nervous corn market the rest of winter.
"A great deal of attention will be paid as to whether or not the patterns have changed to continually bring moisture to the Midwest," said DTN Senior Analyst Darin Newsom. "We'll see almost weekly updates as to how far behind soil moisture might be heading into spring."
A large storm system crossing the Plains and Midwest the week before Christmas did bring some precipitation. Heavy snow brought moisture to parts of Nebraska and much of Iowa. However, DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino is not optimistic this is the beginning of a big change in the weather pattern.
"Looking to January and February, I'm of the opinion that overall dryness is still the dominating feature," Palmerino said. "I don't see any reason to move away from that."
Palmerino even discounts a recent Pacific Ocean trend in barometer readings which hint at an El Nino pattern forming. "It took a big tropical cyclone and an extreme anomaly in the Pacific to allow this to happen," he said. "I would not want to take this and make it a dominant feature going forward."
In the Western Corn Belt, Palmerino is most optimistic about southern and eastern Iowa and Missouri when it comes to additional precipitation.
"South and east of Des Moines continues to fare the best and has done so since late summer/early fall," he noted.
Hayes also leans on the side of less rather than more when it comes to soil moisture recovery in the Western Corn Belt.
"This doesn't look like a pattern will set up that will bring enough moisture to take us out of this," Hayes said. "But there's always a chance. We could end up having this glorious spring that affects the entire central U.S. It might happen in parts."
Hayes recalls another similar dry spell following the famous 1988 drought. "In the late 1980s, along the Missouri River system, managers said it would take 10 years to get out of this low water situation and then came 1993 with heavy rain, flooding and supplies changing from low water level to high water level," he said.
Bryce Anderson can be reached at email@example.com
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