Low rainfall may lead to drought conditions

Above-average temperatures and lower-than-normal rainfall in Northeast Michigan have pushed the area into near-drought conditions. If there isn’t significant precipitation soon, there could be cause for concern for local farmers.

To date, the area is about three inches below the annual average for the farming season and if things don’t turn around weather-wise, damaged crops are a possibility. That will have an impact on farmers, as well as consumers.

Since the beginning of the agriculture year on April 1, the Michigan State University Extension monitoring station in Hawks shows that there has been 4.74 inches of precipitation through Tuesday. That includes the snowstorm that hit the area during the middle of April.

June saw about one inch of rain, which is well below the historical average of 2.5 inches and the current trend indicates there could be less rain this month.

According to MSU Extension Agriculture Educator Jim DeDecker, crops can withstand drought conditions for some time, but rain or another source of water is needed when plants reach their pollination stage. He said if adequate water isn’t provided, crop conditions will take a turn for the worse and harvests could be weak or damaged permanently. DeDecker said corn and bean crops could be impacted, as well as wheat and others. Pollination stages can vary by plant.

“I took a ride the other day and some of the crops in Presque Isle were showing drought stress,” DeDecker said. “As I got out to Hillman, they looked a little better, because I think it had some pop-up thunderstorms there recently. As of now, it looks like drought stress is on a case-by-case basis and conditions vary by location. There was precipitation in some small areas and then none in others. Crop stress is not widespread right now — at least in this area — but it could be if we don’t get more rain.”

Although it was a nuisance at the time it hit, the mid-April snowstorm helped saturate the soil significantly and that helped slow the damage to the crops, DeDecker said. The high humidity that has accompanied the recent heat also has helped because it reduces or slows the evaporation of moisture from the leaves of the plants. If humidity was lower, moisture would be sucked from the plant, endangering it.

“There is less water drawn out of the plant and helps keep it from dehydrating,” he said. “So there is a benefit from the high humidity we have had. It may not be comfortable for us, but it helps the crops.”

It’s nearing the point where the humidity levels won’t matter, DeDecker said. If the dry and hot conditions continue, the odds of crop damage climbs significantly. He said there could be other impacts farmers will face from that a few months from now, he said.

“The first cutting of hay this year had a low yield and if there is a second cutting, it is probably going to produce even less,” DeDecker said. “It might make it harder for some people to feed their animals this coming winter.”

There are five drought classification levels, from abnormally dry D-0 to exceptionally dry D-4. As of Tuesday, the region didn’t fall into any of them, DeDecker said, but could move to a D-0 when the National Weather Service in Gaylord issues a new report on Thursday.

Over the next two weeks, there is little rain in the forecast, Weather Service meteorologist Tim Locker said. With the exception of two days in the mid-70s, temperatures are expected to be above historical averages. That, unfortunately, sets the stage for increased pressure on crops.

“There is a chance for up to a quarter inch of rain from Thursday night through Friday morning and at this point, every little bit helps,” Locker said. “We cool off for a few days and then we go right back up into the nineties. There really isn’t going to be a lot of relief. People are going to have to keep watering their gardens and lawns for a while.”

That forecast worries DeDecker.

“Most of the crops have been able to hold off these drought conditions and have been pretty tolerant to them,” he said. “We are getting concerned because we are beginning to see the stress out there and it is beginning to get to the critical stage.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via email at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5689. Follow Steve on Twitter ss_alpenanews.