Midwest snow helps wheat, but more would be better

by Laura Lloyd
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KANSAS CITY — David Salmon, an agricultural meteorologist, said the recent heavy snow blanketing much of the center of the United States, has “much improved” the soil moisture in hard red winter wheat growing areas.

Drew Lerner, senior agriculture meteorologist at WorldWeather, Inc., said the back-to-back storms ending Feb. 26 represented the greatest amount of precipitation in hard red winter wheat country since April 2012.  He said the storm extended from the Texas Panhandle through much of Kansas, portions of Nebraska and further east through Iowa and Missouri on through the Great Lakes region.

Mr. Lerner said snowfall ranged from 4 to 8 inches in more northern areas to as much as 20 inches in parts of the Texas Panhandle. Those depths translated to rainfall of from 0.5 inches to 1.5 inches in Nebraska and Northern Kansas to a much heavier 1.5 to 4 inches from southern Kansas to Texas.

The back-to-back storms, though not record-breakers, had a meaningful impact, especially in the parched hard red winter wheat belt, Mr. Lerner said. He predicted that the crop “would have a better chance to green up normally” as a result of this major recent storm system, even though the region remains in a precipitation deficit.

Mr. Salmon concurred that the storm’s moisture had important benefits.

“The wheat that has remained viable through the prolonged dryness has very much improved soil conditions,” Mr. Salmon said. He estimated that the southeast quadrant of Kansas, the leading hard red winter wheat producing state, had generally received 1 ½ to 2 inches of precipitation recently, shaving off about a third of its 5-to-6-inch moisture deficit.

He said weather models are showing another heavy snow storm hitting the region in about 12 to 14 days. Mr. Lerner said predictions that far in advance are not always accurate. Even so, he said the storms that produced more than a foot of snow across the High Plains “foreshadows what is coming” — a moderation in the extreme dryness experienced by much of the region.

 Mr. Salmon said he is “straddling the fence” about whether the recent drought conditions were moving to a wetter long-term weather pattern. He added, though, that he thinks the “overall global weather pattern probably has changed.” He pointed out that the drought in the Ohio Valley appeared to be history, replaced by a much-wetter weather pattern. That region, where soft wheat, corn and soybeans are grown, now will have to grapple with the possibility of flooding, although Mr. Salmon does not think there is a high likelihood of that occurring this spring.

As for the western sectors of the hard red winter wheat belt, — Oklahoma City to Wichita to Omaha — Mr. Salmon said the soil needs 5 to 6 inches more rainfall by the first of May to fully mitigate the ongoing drought. Noting that an inch of snow is nowhere near the same amount of precipitation as an inch of rain, he estimated that 10 inches of snow translates to about 2/3 of an inch of rain, sometimes less since dry powdery snow has lower moisture content than wet snow.

“To have half a hope for the new wheat crop, we need at least 3 or 4 inches of rainfall by the beginning of May and 5 to 6 inches would be better,” Mr. Salmon said.

Mr. Lerner said 2 to 4 inches of precipitation during cool weather, thus limiting evaporation, would probably be enough to create viable soil moisture in Colorado, Western Nebraska and far west Kansas. Less would be required in areas such as eastern Kansas, he said. He argued that crops can perform well even if growing areas remain in some level of drought, which he expects will occur.

“I fully expect the (hard red winter) wheat crop to do well even though hydrologic drought will likely prevail,” Mr. Lerner said.
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