Drought Stretching to Second Year Boosting Risk for U.S. Crops

The risk of drought damaging U.S. corn and soybean crops for a second year is increasing as forecasters predict persistently dry weather in the Midwest and Great Plains through April, the start of the planting season.

The U.S. Climate Prediction Center probably will say tomorrow that the growing region will remain drier than normal over the next three months, according to four of five forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg. Almost 42 percent of the contiguous U.S. was in severe to exceptional drought as of Jan. 8, government data show. That’s more than double for the date a year earlier, before the worst drought since the 1930s cut combined output of corn and soybeans by the most since 1996.

“The drought will persist through May with warm temperatures and below-normal rain in the western half of the Midwest,” Joel Widenor, the director of agricultural services for Bethesda, Maryland-based Commodity Weather Group LLC, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “About 50 percent of the Midwest will remain in drought condition.”

Corn and soybean prices surged to records last year as output fell, while dry fields across the Great Plains left winter-wheat conditions in November at their worst since at least 1985, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began collecting the data. Wheat futures jumped to a four-year high last year, and farmers have already collected a record $11.581 billion on insurance claims for damage to all crops in 2012.

Disaster Counties

The government last week announced drought-disaster designations for 597 counties, mostly for states in the South and Southwest, making farmers in those counties and in 285 adjoining counties eligible for low-interest emergency loans. A record 2.8 million acres of land in the Conservation Reserve Program were opened to allow emergency hay growing and cattle grazing to assist livestock producers affected by the drought.

U.S. corn production last year fell to a six-year low, and soybean output declined to the lowest since 2009, the USDA said on Jan. 11. Hay output dropped 8.6 percent to 120 million tons, the lowest since 1964, increasing demand for grain to feed beef cattle and dairy cows.

Last year was the hottest on record going back to 1895 for the lower 48 states and the second-worst for weather extremes including drought, hurricanes and wildfires, the National Weather Service said Jan. 8.

While rain from Louisiana to Ohio over the past month boosted soil moisture for some farmers and improved barge shipping along the Mississippi River, the precipitation is a telltale sign of an intensifying La Nina pattern and increased U.S. drought risks in 2013, said Scott Yuknis, the president of Climate Impact Co. in Middleboro, Massachusetts. Last year fit a pattern of drought events lasting longer, he said.

Warming Signals

Cooling Pacific Ocean water and warming temperatures in the northern Atlantic Ocean are signaling another warm, dry year for U.S. crops, Yuknis said.

“Most of the central U.S. will be dry for the next 90 days, and the drought will intensify” from Texas to the Canadian Prairies and most of the southeastern U.S., he said. “We are already ahead of last year’s moisture deficits. This summer may feature a huge area of heat and dryness, possibly worse than last year.”

The current weather patterns and multiple years of dryness are similar to the 1950s and 1930s when the center of the U.S. droughts moved each year. The focal point of this year’s drought risk may shift north to Redwood Falls, Minnesota, moving from last year’s center at Grand Island, Nebraska, and Dallas in 2011, said Fred Gesser, the senior agricultural meteorologist for Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

Drought Diamond

The highest risk area for dry, warm weather this year is inside of a diamond-shaped region from Waco, Texas, to Denver to International Falls, Minnesota, to St. Louis, Gesser said. That would included Iowa, the largest U.S. corn and soybean grower, where most of the crop is planted by June.

“There is a 70 percent probability for last year’s drought to linger into 2013,” Gesser said. “There will be little moisture relief for the next three to four months. That means the onset of warming temperatures in May and June will magnify stress on crops from dry soils.”

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