Is El Niño on last leg?

Crops being affected by dry conditions after experiencing extreme wetness this spring

There are some indications that El Niño weather conditions may be coming to a close, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture chief meteorologist Brad Rippey.

“That may have some implications on the weather for the rest of the summer,” he said. However, they are not likely to be big ones.

The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported July 22 that while El Niño is still present, a transition from El Niño to ENSO-neutral is expected in the next month or two, with ENSO-neutral most likely to continue through the Northern Hemisphere fall and winter.

According to NOAA, near- to above-average sea surface temperatures (SSTs) have been present across most of the Pacific Ocean since early June 2018. During February 2019, positive SST anomalies strengthened across most of the equatorial Pacific, but NOAA reported that positive SST anomalies weakened in the eastern Pacific last week.

Due to cooling of the Pacific water, Rippey said some drier weather may begin to develop across the U.S.

“Temperatures have already started to reach or exceed 100 degrees across the central and southern High Plains, and that heat will continue to build northward and eastward,” he reported.

The heat has been caused by a temporary shift in the jet stream, USDA’s Gary Crawford added.

Rippey reported that a couple of areas have turned dry, such as pockets of the southern Plains, with parts of Texas and Oklahoma starting to show some signs of crop stress.

Also, despite an extremely wet spring and early summer, even parts of the southern Corn Belt have become dry, he said.

“Ironically, areas that were incredibly wet just a few weeks ago, generally stretching across from the middle Mississippi Valley into the lower Great Lakes region, have really appreciably dried out over the last couple weeks,” Rippey said.

This has caused compacted soils and poor root development for corn and soybeans.

“They are the first fields to exhibit signs of stress, so corn and soybeans that are now seeing dry topsoils [or] compacted soils where planters ran on wet soils earlier in the season, that’s where we’re seeing earlier-than-normal stress, even with just a couple of dry weeks and then last week’s heat wave,” Rippey explained.

Feedstuffs’ sister publication Farm Futures reported this week that USDA docked corn crop quality a point in the most recent “Crop Progress” report, moving it down to 57% in good to excellent condition. Some of the best production states so far this year include Tennessee (85%), Colorado (78%) and North Dakota (77%). States on the low end of the spectrum include Missouri (33%), Indiana (35%) and Ohio (35%).

Physiologically, 35% of the crop is silking, which Ben Potter, senior editor for Farm Futures, noted is significantly behind the 2018 pace of 78% and the five-year average of 66%. Only 5% of the crop has reached dough stage, down from 16% last year and the five-year average of 10%.

Soybean quality ratings remained unchanged from the prior week, with 54% of the crop in good to excellent condition, 34% rated fair and the remaining 12% rated poor or very poor.

Physiologically, 40% of the soybean crop is blooming, which Potter said is a marked improvement over the prior week’s tally of 22%. However, this is still well behind the 2018 pace of 76% and the five-year average of 66%. Further, just 7% of the crop is setting pods -- sharply lower than 41% in 2018 and the five-year average of 28%.

Looking ahead, very warm conditions are expected to return from July 30 to Aug. 5, Rippey said.

The precipitation forecast is a “mixed bag,” he said, because drier-than-normal conditions are in the forecast for across the Plains and into the Rockies, but near- or above-normal precipitation is predicted for most areas from the Mississippi River Valley to the East Coast and also in parts of the Southwest.

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