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Looking for rain: Many Louisiana fields dry as bone

After a brief reprieve in April when up to 10 inches of rain fell in parts of the state, Louisiana producers are back to scanning the horizon longingly for rain clouds.

“May has been as dry as a bone,” says Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist. “Farmers are right to be worried.”

Conditions are so dry that David Lanclos isn't overly concerned with reports of Asian soybean rust in Mexico.

“We're doing weekly scouting trips by the Texas border and, thus far, we've seen nothing in the sentinel plots,” says the LSU AgCenter soybean, corn and milo specialist. “We'll continue checking them. But in my opinion, the environment isn't conducive for (ASR). We're extremely hot with little to no moisture. The state is burning up.”

While the April rains dumped a lot of water, it must be put in context.

“We've been in a drought for a while. Those April rains did allow us to plant the crop or get one up. Unfortunately, that rainwater was absorbed quickly or ran off.”

In truth, say the men, the April rains only provided several weeks of reprieve.

“If we don't get a rain on dryland fields (by June 1), the situation will be very bad,” says Lanclos. “Yields will definitely be impacted. Long-term, there are some 30 to 40 percent rain chances into early (June). But that's on paper, man. We need it on the ground.”

Asked to compare the 2005 drought with conditions so far this year, Lanclos says things are similar. Louisiana crops are already showing much drought stress and it's causing secondary problems.

“The most impacted crop is corn. We're going into kernel fill in a week or so. We're also seeing problems with the beans prematurely flowering and lack of growth. They aren't putting on a lot of biomass; without water soon, that could translate to less yield. Our earliest beans are approaching R-2/R-3. That means we need moisture in a big way.

“We have some irrigated corn that looks fantastic. But we also have some corn that's only 6 feet tall and fully grown. That's due to lack of water. Will that translate to a yield loss? I think we'll be impacted but I'm not going to be a solid pessimist yet. There are some good root systems. But we must have a replenishing rain or (the pessimism) will emerge.”

In recent years, Louisiana's once pervasive afternoon showers have all but disappeared. Asked if this has been seen during El Niño/La Niña shifts in the past, Keim is unsure.

“I've been meaning to do a study on that, to see if the distribution of rainfall has changed even though the means haven't. Granted, last year was a dry one, but in terms of the effective precipitation it was much drier than the record even showed. That's because we were in a drought interrupted by two major rainfall events. One, Rita, dropped a lot of water across Louisiana. Katrina was more limited to the southeastern part of the state.

“I agree that the afternoon, summer shower patterns don't seem to be what they were back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, you could almost set your watch by those showers. Now, we're lucky to get anything at all.

“Whether or not this is a more sinister, long-term problem, I don't know. And I've not heard anyone really digging into it.”

Lanclos says it seems the state is in a pattern “where we'll see four or five days of extreme rain events. That means a lot of the water runs off and doesn't have time to seep into the soil. Then, another holding pattern of 15 to 20 days of zero rain with strong winds arises. That saps the soil of moisture and isn't conducive to maximizing yields. The typical, soaking afternoon showers are done. They haven't been around in a long time.”

There have been studies on the impact of El Niño, especially in the late winter/early spring. Last year, a mild La Niña was most prominent.

“That affects the subtropical jet stream which, in turn, influences whether we get storms in the Gulf of Mexico. With a La Niña, that subtropical jet is weakened. Since we don't get the gulf storms, we miss out on a substantial portion of the winter/spring precipitation. That's basically what played out this past season.”

The long-range forecast for June and into the summer is for warmer than normal conditions with normal precipitation.

“We're in a deep hole moisture-wise,” says Keim. “While ‘normal’ sounds good, it won't pull us out of that deficit. Of course, at this point, if promised ‘normal precipitation,’ I imagine most farmers would accept it in a heartbeat.”

While the long-range forecast doesn't bode well for agriculture, Keim says such forecasting is largely a guessing game. “Some indicators do suggest this is way things are headed, but if I were a farmer, I wouldn't put all my chips on it.”

The long-range forecast also says to expect an “above normal” hurricane season.

“Of course, it would be hard to beat last year when record after record was broken. But still, we're staring at an above-normal season. Where (the storms will) go, though, is anyone's guess.”

The pattern of the last two years is for the storms to be pushed toward landfall.

“In the mid-1990s, we had some very active years, as well. But the steering currents kept them offshore. I've heard people say, ‘It's the east coast's turn.’ But we're not in any position to make such claims.

“It's kind of odd to think of it from this perspective, but it would be a good time for a small, weak tropical to come up and provide a nice, slow rain. We don't want to wish for too much tropical activity, but a weak system would provide welcome relief.”


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