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Feb. 21, 2013 Volume 34, No. 20

Midwest soil may take years to recover from drought conditions, expert says


Heavy snowfall unlikely to help drought conditions

The Midwest suffered the worst drought in a generation last summer, and the soil has been suffering from a drought since early 2010, an MU expert said. As a result, crops have wilted and farmers have had to rely on crop insurance to avoid financial catastrophe.

Randall Miles, associate professor of soil science at the MU School of Natural Resources, said it may take at least two years for crops and soil to recover.

He discovered that Midwest soil is dry as deep as 5 feet, where the roots of the crops absorb moisture and nutrients.

“I wouldn’t count on a full recovery of soil moisture any time soon,” Miles said. “Even if parts of the Midwest receive a lot of snowfall and rain this spring, it will take time for the moisture to move deeply into the soil where the driest conditions exist.”

In 2012, Miles found that some roots had to go down as much as 8 feet to extract water. Typically, 1 foot of soil holds 2 inches of water. To recharge completely, a fully depleted soil would require about 16 inches of water over a period of normal rainfall.

There’s been minimal snowfall this winter. But even if March brings a couple of blizzards, it is unlikely to help the soil.

“It is important to remember that a foot of snowfall equals about an inch of rainfall,” Miles said, “so the soil could take some time to recharge.”

Miles has been testing the depths of soil moisture around Missouri and found that parts of the state where Hurricane Isaac dropped extra rain were wet in the first few inches of soil, but dry below that level. While any moisture helps, Miles said it will evaporate after a few days of high winds.

“In order for the soil moisture to return to a normal state this year, the rain and snow would almost have to come continuously,” Miles said. 

Moreover, the rain would have to be light to minimize runoff. Hard rain won’t do much good.

Miles believes that it could be two to three years before farmers can expect bumper crops again.

— Jeret Rion