Minnesota crops showing drought stress at a crucial time

Rainfall need is 'critical' in July

a man examines corn plants in a field
Farmer Andrew Ingvalson looks at corn plants stunted by a late spring frost and ongoing drought Tuesday near near Frazee, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Andrew Ingvalson planted a field of alfalfa this spring, anticipating it would provide five years of hay crops for his 450 cattle.

But few of the seeds sprouted because the soil was too dry.

"You almost need three days of moisture to really get it to establish itself," he said as he looked across the field near Frazee about an hour east of Moorhead.

"I've never had this happen before. I'm guessing I'm going to have to reseed it."

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Just across the driveway is an established alfalfa field. But bare ground is visible between the drought-stunted plants. Hay production on his established alfalfa fields is only one-third of what it was last year at this time. Corn he chops for silage is stunted and showing signs of drought stress. He's already talked to his banker about a potential loan to buy winter feed for his cattle.

A man walks in a grassy field
Andrew Ingvalson's drought-stunted alfalfa crop is producing only about one-third as many hay bales, compared to last year.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"That's my backup plan, I guess, if I have to buy all my feed,” said Ingvalson. “I'm hoping that the bank will cover that. They said they would anyways."

If enough rain falls in July, his corn and alfalfa could still show improvement.

In Norman County, Corey Hanson is watching his corn, soybean and wheat crops wither. Two years ago he struggled to harvest crops because it was too wet.

“I’ve got probably the poorest corn stand I've ever had. It's just the kernels never got enough moisture to sprout, beans are kind of the same way,” said Hanson, who farms near Gary.

I’ve got some wheat that's heading out, or trying to head out, that's only 6 inches tall because of the drought.”

The damage is already done to wheat, an early season crop. Hanson’s corn and soybeans could still recover if sufficient rain falls soon.

“I'm pretty scared that even with ideal conditions, the plant has already scaled back its yield because of lack of moisture. Now, I might be wrong. And I hope I am. But I think there's going to be a lot of disappointing yields out there, even if we have a perfect rest of the year,” he said.

Minnesota has millions of acres of farmland spread over a large state. Recent rains have hit some areas and missed others. Soil types vary from rich clay that holds more water to sandy areas that dry out quickly. Topsoil moisture is currently short or very short across nearly two-thirds of the state, according to the USDA weekly crop progress report.

From Crookston to Worthington, drought is top of mind.

"Hopefully, we'll get some moisture, because it is going to be a really critical time coming up here over the next few weeks," said University of Minnesota Extension crop specialist Liz Stahl.

Stahl, based in Worthington, sees corn leaves curling during the heat of the day as she drives by fields.

drought stressed corn plants in a field
Corn plant leaves roll up in response to drought and heat as the plant tries to conserve moisture.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"They shouldn't look like pineapple plants out there,” she said, describing the corn. “That's a sign of stress, but they're still green in most fields. Nothing's burning up yet, and I sure hope that doesn't happen."

Under drought stress, corn plants grow roots up to 5 feet deep, searching for moisture, and at this stage of growth they are remarkably resilient, said Stahl.

But stress on the plants will increase significantly when they shift to reproduction, starting to make ears of corn, over the next few weeks.

“You're talking about typically early to mid-July. That's where if we have drought stress, that can really have a severe impact on yield potential,” she said.

In northwest Minnesota, farmers who were planting and harvesting in mud two years ago are now watching crops wither.

Crookston-based University of Minnesota crop expert Angie Peltier sees clear damage to wheat crops.

"There are literally large, large patches in the fields of dead spring wheat due to drought," she said.

Even where corn and soybean crops look good Peltier says you find signs of stress.

“We're seeing, especially in the soybeans, a crop that's kind of standing still. So it's kind of taken a pause, at least above ground.”

Soybeans mature later in the fall and will need moisture into August to fill the seed pods farmers harvest.

corn plants in a row
Dry conditions caused corn seeds to sprout unevenly, leading to big differences in plant size and maturity.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Peltier is also seeing knee-high corn next to ankle-high plants, because the seeds sprouted weeks apart in the dry soil.

“And I know that has started to worry farmers thinking about, ‘is this going to affect my harvest? Am I going to be trying to harvest the crop when half of the crop is still not harvest-ready?’ " said Peltier.

Questions about harvest will be decided in many areas by how much rain falls in July and August.

As farmer Andrew Ingvalson surveyed his drought-stunted corn plants, he held out hope a decent crop is still possible.

"If we get some rain this summer, it could change overnight," he said.