In about 75 days, farmers will deploy their corn planters to begin the central U.S. 2013 row-crop season.
However, following last year's drought -- the most extensive in the U.S. since the mid-1950s -- producers across the Corn Belt are nervous about what soil moisture those new seeds will encounter.
The corn market also is full of nervous anticipation. "Traders will take note of precipitation across the U.S. Midwest over the course of the winter, given the dry soil conditions at the end of last fall," said DTN Senior Analyst Darin Newsom. "This should continue to be an evolving issue."
Winter precipitation has thus far developed to be more favorable east of the Mississippi River.
"We've seen a lot of rain in the lower Mississippi Valley into the Eastern Corn Belt, even with some lowland flooding," said USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey. "We have turned the corner on drought in the Eastern Corn Belt. East of the Mississippi, the outlook is bright for (soft red winter) wheat along with spring crop moisture, and possibly even some planting delays."
However, the improvement tails off rapidly. "There's a big transition from eastern Illinois-Indiana west. We've seen some snow in the upper Midwest, but subsoil moisture is depleted," Rippey said.
Precipitation is far behind normal in the Western Corn Belt. The National Weather Service records show Omaha's total precipitation Jan. 1, 2012, through Jan. 16, 2013, was 22.65 inches -- 8.36 in. below normal. The precipitation total in Des Moines has an even larger deficit: 26.41 in. measured in the same time period, 10.12 in. below normal.
That moisture deficit is compounded by what South Dakota state climatologist Dennis Todey sees as an uncertain outlook for the next six weeks.
Todey sees some contrasting outlooks, he said. "Some of the dynamic models that go out for several months have been hinting at more activity (precipitation) and some recovery on moisture. That's in contrast with other tools that say 'If you have dry soils, there's not a lot of moisture around, so you may not have enough moisture to be very active.'"
LITTLE MOISTURE FOR WESTERN CORN BELT
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino sees hardly any moisture benefit for the Western Corn Belt in the final few weeks of winter. "West of the Mississippi, I don't know when the next chance for significant precipitation will be," Palmerino said. "You could make a case that maybe we're not looking at much west of the Mississippi all the way through February."
The Pacific Ocean temperature and pressure patterns also offer little tangible potential to improve the situation. Analysis by various weather agencies, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Australia Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), predict that the Pacific-equator-region feature known as ENSO (El Nino-Southern Oscillation) will be neutral through the Northern Hemisphere spring.
However, a longer-term, Pacific temperature pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which correlates with the temperature relationship north to south off North America's West Coast, is in a negative (cool) phase this winter. The negative PDO tends to suppress moisture developing in the Western Corn Belt.
"The atmosphere has been mimicking La Nina, with more moisture in the northwest, the wetter conditions in the mid-South through the Great Lakes, plus dryness in the southwest, and the negative PDO contributes to that," said Rippey. "It's more dominant than it normally would be."
One area that may benefit from this influence, if it is sustained, is the northern portion of the Western Corn Belt: Minnesota, North Dakota, and even portions of central and eastern Iowa. "Looking way out beyond a couple weeks, we could see some new wet conditions in the Pacific Northwest that may work into the upper Midwest," Rippey said. NOAA's late-winter Drought Outlook, issued Jan. 17, seems to follow Rippey's interpretation. It predicted at least a one-stage improvement in drought categories in North Dakota, Minnesota, the eastern half of Iowa, northern Illinois, and Wisconsin.
But Todey is careful to not be too confident of quick improvement in Western Corn Belt moisture supplies. "It is possible to quickly reverse course. We are seeing some wacky things happening in our climate right now," he said. "But statistically speaking, we would not expect a major swing to wet weather."
Bryce Anderson can be reached at email@example.com