Dry fall accelerates harvest; pattern change forecast

Fog surrounds farm equipment that sits parked in a McLean County field. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Mostly dry conditions through the first two months of fall created quite a paradox for farmers.

On one hand, they welcomed the dry and mostly mild conditions, which accelerated the harvest pace after a slow start.

Nationwide, farmers harvested 88% of soybeans and 76% of corn, 10 and 12 points ahead of the average pace, respectively, as of Oct. 31. Sorghum harvest was also ahead of the average pace with 77% in the bin on Halloween.

But, on the other hand, a serious lack of rainfall in many areas created the ongoing low river levels and navigation issues on the Mississippi, Ohio and other rivers. Severe dryness in some areas also led to outbreaks of field fires in recent weeks.

“It was a lot drier the first 20 days of October. Most places had less than an inch of precipitation and in parts of southern Illinois they had less than a quarter inch,” Trent Ford, state climatologist with the Illinois State Water Survey, told FarmWeek.

“It was a positive thing when it comes to harvest,” he continued. “It gave folks a way to catch up, maybe let Mother Nature dry down some of the grain naturally rather than pay for it and to not rush (which reduces the threat of accidents and health issues during fall fieldwork).”

Illinois farmers harvested 89% of soybeans and 78% of corn as of Oct. 31, both slightly ahead of the average pace.

The preliminary estimates for October peg the precipitation average at just 2.3 inches statewide, .6 inches below normal, with an average temperature last month of 53.1 degrees, about 1.5 degrees below the 30-year average, Ford reported.

“We finally got some rain in here the last few days of October, which was beneficial,” Ford said. “Some parts of southern Illinois prior to that only received half an inch of rain since mid-August. That acute dryness in parts of southern Illinois up the Ohio Valley added stress on the low flow of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.”

The well-publicized low-water issues on the river system really started last year with dryness and drought in the Missouri River basin, according to the climatologist.

Low flow from the Missouri into the Mississippi River was exacerbated by more recent dryness along the Upper Mississippi and extreme dryness in the Ohio River basin.

“All of those things came to a head in October,” Ford said of what appears to be an ongoing situation that could linger well into winter. “Just as it takes a long time to get a big river low, it takes a long time to get them high.”

The outlook currently leans toward warmer and slightly drier conditions than normal for November, following recent rains.

“There should be opportunities for folks to wrap up fieldwork,” Ford said.

After that, the outlook for winter currently has a strong bias favoring continuation of the La Nina influence.

“It means an elevated chance of above-normal precipitation and equal chances of above and below normal temperatures,” Ford said. “If winter plays the La Nina card, we could get opportunities to make up some of the rainfall deficit (in Illinois).”

Outside of the state, the current outlook favors wetter-than-normal conditions this winter in the Ohio Valley and possibly drier conditions in the Missouri River basin.

“We’re likely to see some recovery of the Mississippi River, but it will take a while,” Ford added.