Northwest Minnesota counties experiencing drought

Dry cornfield
This cornfield in Polk County, Minn., shows signs of stress because of drought conditions in northwestern Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of Jim Stordahl

While much of Minnesota is a bit soggy after a great deal of rain, the northwestern part of the state is seeing drought conditions take hold.

Some crop damage is already reported and experts say unless widespread rain falls this week, the area could soon be in severe drought.

Small grains like wheat and barley are beginning to ripen across northwest Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, but the harvest likely will be disappointing.

In some areas, experts say wheat yields will be half the average yield of about 50 bushels per acre.

The drought area stretches from just north of Fargo, N.D., to the Canadian border, affecting about a dozen Minnesota counties.

Small grains struggled all season because the soil was too dry for the shallow-rooted crops, said University of Minnesota extension educator Jim Stordahl, who works in Polk and Clearwater counties.

"That dry effect started way last fall," Stordahl said. "And we just haven't had the rains, we haven't had the moisture in the soil profile to bring those crops through."

Cutting hay
Derek Rolf cuts drought-damaged alfalfa on his family's farm near McIntosh, Minn., on July 3, 2012.
Photo courtesy of Jim Stordahl

Stordahl said the corn crop in northwest Minnesota looks good but is starting to show signs of drought stress in the July heat.

"[On] some of the corn the leaves will be rolling up, trying to conserve that moisture, an indication there's some stress going on," he said. "Soybeans are the same thing. You can see patches in the field that are wilting."

Stordahl said corn and soybeans are very resilient and mature later in the summer, so with timely rains farmers could still see a good crop. But if dry conditions persist, he said, there will be permanent damage to all crops.

Dry conditions also reduced hay crops and slowed pasture growth, Stordahl said.

About 20 counties in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota are now in moderate drought. That could change this week, as the area is on the verge of moving into a severe drought, said Mark Ewens, a climate forecaster for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D.

"We're looking at a relatively prolonged period of hot weather across northern Minnesota, at least this week," Ewens said. "If we do not see widespread several-inch rainfalls, the odds of dropping into the D2 severe drought from the D1 moderate drought are fairly high."

National Weather Service forecasters say four to seven inches of rain are needed to replenish soil moisture across much of northwest Minnesota.

Ewens said streams are flowing at levels well below normal this summer. Because soil moisture is not being replenished, groundwater is moving down or percolating into deep soil.

He said a groundwater monitoring well near Crookston shows soil water levels are down two feet since last fall.

"That's very significant for here in the Red River Valley, to see a two-foot decrease in the water table," Ewens said. "That suggests to us the percolation has really, really ramped up. Especially at a time of the year when we typically see the water levels going back up as rainfalls increase."

June and July are typically the months when the most rain falls, Ewens said. June rainfall across the northern Red River Valley continued the below normal precipitation trend that started last fall.

The next National Drought Monitor update will be released on Thursday.

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