Mark Seeley, a U of M Extension Service Climatologist said the last time the country saw this kind of drought was in 1936.

Mark Seeley, a U of M Extension Service Climatologist said the last time the country saw this kind of drought was in 1936.

University of Minnesota data shows the 1936 drought persisted for 65 to 75 months throughout the midwest.

For the past 110 years, weather observers have kept track of the climate at thousands of places across the United States and the world. They’ve recorded temperature, rainfall, winds and other weather patterns day in and day out. From that data, they have described what is “normal” for a given place at a given time of the year.

Scientists have adopted several different definitions of drought to help them understand the forces that produce it and to predict when another cycle may hit.

Other measures look at vegetative conditions, agricultural productivity, soil moisture, water levels in reservoirs and streams, and economic impacts. Using these measures, the University of Nebraska’s Drought Mitigation Center maintains a weekly drought monitoring map, along with a host of other information.

One of the problems is that the historic record of climate change only goes back 110 years or so. So scientists have begun studying secondary indicators of climate change – the width of tree rings, lake and sand dune sediments, archaeological remains and other environmental indicators.

Wayne Schoper, Farm Business Management instructor at South Central College in Mankato, agrees that this drought could be comparable to the drought of the 1930s. He explained that for the first time in many years since he’s been involved in agricultural production, this is the lowest level of subsoil moisture he’s ever experienced.

“Last year at this time we had decent subsoil moisture, but that is now gone,” Schoper said.

However, what technology has provided that was lacking in the 1930s, is hybrids that can withstand drought conditions to a certain degree.

He added that even if we have a dry spring, we will have enough moisture with snow melt to get planting off to a good start. Despite drought resistant hybrids, Schoper added, rain in April and through May will be needed to be able to maintain a decent crop.

Jennifer Hahn with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said without moisture commercial fertilizer applications may not be as effective because of reduced moisture, and while solid manure acts as mulch to cover and protect soil, it will have a harder time breaking up and releasing nutrients into the soil without moisture.

“Tissue tests were all over the board last year and can’t be utilized for nutrient management due to their unreliability,” she added.

She went on to say that soils are more prone to wind and water erosion and can actually start to repel water and make it hard to get the water to percolate and cause it to run off instead of soaking in.

“Different crop varieties have come a long way and really helped us in the 2012 growing season,” Hahn said. “The moisture we had in the subsoil last year is minimal or gone and recharge will be needed in slow, spaced out rain events this spring and hopefully summer to keep yields from plummeting.” 

Despite the outlook appearing grim, Schoper said weather extremes are a part of Minnesota and management of those extremes is what makes Minnesotan’s a hearty group of people.

“I advise farmers not to change things too much,” Schoper added. “Plant as if anticipating a good year. That’s critical.”