Recent dryness spells trouble for Missouri agriculture

Hot and dry conditions this year have agriculture experts concerned about the potential effect on Missouri farmers’ crops.

There have been 10 days with high temperatures at or above 90 degrees in central Missouri so far in 2016, compared with four during the same time period last year. Additionally, rainfall amounts across the state are significantly below average, particularly in central and northern Missouri, according to a Missouri Climate Center report. Columbia has been 7 inches below normal and has recorded its driest January-May since 1992.

This is worrisome for Gene Stevens, a crop production specialist at Fisher Delta Research Center. “High temperature is more detrimental to crops when it’s coupled with low rainfall or water stress,” he said.

Accumulated precipitation
Accumulated precipitation in Missouri counties during Jan. 1-May 31, 2016. | Graphic courtesy of Missouri Climate Center

Crop damages and livestock stress

Missouri is one of the leading producers of rice, soybean, cotton and corn in the United States. Ideal daytime temperatures for crops like soybeans and corn tend to be in the mid-80s, and a little warmer for cotton and rice.

Michael Milam, an agronomy specialist at MU Extension, said the high temperatures could cause crop injuries, especially during the early growing seasons.

“The thing that concerns me the most is that we have had a number of nighttime temperatures, the lows, being in the upper-70s,” Milam said. “That’s important because once it gets to 80 degrees at night, the plant cannot recover.”

The lack of rain has exacerbated the problem. Most crops need up to about 1-2 inches of rain weekly to grow well. However, according to MU Extension news, in the second week of June, only Barton County received rain in Missouri, and it only got less than a third of an inch.

Livestock and livestock products, which account for more than half of Missouri’s agricultural production, also face stress. Peter Zimmer, operations director and program leader of MU Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, said the dryness could diminish the grazing habitat of cattle. Pigs are also at risk, as they may eat less when exposed to high heat.

The uncertain future

The latest summer temperature and precipitation outlook for the next two months by the Climate Prediction Center shows possible high temperatures and low rainfalls in most parts of Missouri except some western sections. Conditions can worsen quickly as summer approaches, the climate center report says.

A recent thunderstorm in central Missouri offered a glimmer of hope for milder weather in the near future. Rain is likely to drive down the temperature and boost soil moisture.

“After today, the temperature is supposed to be dropping, and the night temperatures are going to be much more normal,” Milam said.

Overall, forecasts about future weather in Missouri are mixed. Milam wasn’t sure about the rainfall for the rest of the year. Stevens, likewise, considers rainfall too unpredictable because of its scattered nature. “You can have a thunderstorm on one farm, with a quarter-mile down the road not getting it at all,” Stevens said.

Zimmer took a wait-and-see attitude about weather.   

“We are not completely through our growing season, so a lot can happen during that time we get back to normal weather,” he said. “The crops can still come out favorably. But if (this weather) continues for a prolonged period throughout the whole growing season, we will definitely have lower yields.”

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