By Cheryl Anderson
DTN Staff Reporter
DAVENPORT, Neb. (DTN) -- Soil moisture is the key to predicting how this season's alfalfa crops may fare. While some regions are in fairly good shape with soil moisture, other areas remain in a deficit and desperately need rainfall to meet this year's demand.
According to the April 16 U.S. Drought Monitor, except for the southeast portion of Oklahoma, many portions of the state remain in the severe, extreme and exceptional drought categories. Central and northern Texas have similar drought challenges.
Although the overall drought situation has improved dramatically from last year, the West Texas region still has many spots that are bone-dry, according to Calvin Trostle, associate professor and extension agronomist at the Texas A&M's Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.
As water levels decline in the Ogallala Aquifer because of the drought, irrigation capacity has been reduced and has become the big issue for Texas alfalfa growers.
DROUGHT IN NORTHERN STATES LESS SEVERE
Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin all have major portions of their states in the abnormally dry and moderate drought categories, as do New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
But soil moisture may be looking up in portions of the Midwest, as last week's Drought Monitor noted that a "significant amount of rain fell from Iowa across Minnesota, Wisconsin and into Michigan" the prior week and "caused improvements in the path of the storm," while other areas remained unchanged. More precipitation has fallen since then in the Corn Belt.
The Southern Plains also received rainfall, which led to some minor improvements in all drought categories in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and southeast Kansas.
Some areas are in better shape than others for their alfalfa crops.
Soil moisture is pretty good in most areas of Wisconsin, according to Dan Undersander, research and extension forage agronomist for the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Soil moisture is adequate for now in southern Wisconsin, said Tom Crave, who operates a 1,500-cow dairy, farm and cheese plant with his four brothers near Waterloo, Wisconsin.
"We're still looking for some spring rains, but June, July and August is when we really need it," Crave said.
Other states also have favorable soil moisture for alfalfa. "There was some snow melt, and there have been some rains in areas across parts of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana," Undersander said.
According to Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy and extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, soil moisture in Nebraska is variable.
"In our general mid-Great Plains region, we're probably in pretty decent shape from a soil moisture standpoint," Anderson said. "It's nothing to get overly excited about, but not too many areas will be in a moisture deficit at the start of the year."
Art Anderson, who grows about 1,800 acres of alfalfa yearly in west central Nebraska near Arcadia, Neb., said the lack of snow cover during winter left his alfalfa acres in quite a bit of a deficit.
John Moore, a farmer near Manhattan, Illinois, described his soil moisture as adequate, adding that he is located near an abnormally dry area near the Wisconsin/Illinois border.
Meanwhile, alfalfa grower Gerald Gauck reported a surplus of rain on his fields in Ripley County in southeastern Indiana. He said his biggest worry might be that it's too wet.
DEALING WITH DRYNESS IN TEXAS
Back in Texas, the concern is the Ogallala Aquifer water levels continuing to drop and the options for the alfalfa producers -- for this year and beyond.
Trostle estimates irrigation could be reduced by as much as 27% in the Texas High Plains, and 15% fewer acres irrigated, in 15 years. He said the three crops most likely to be affected are peanuts, alfalfa and corn.
For now, there are pumping limits in place, but it often boils down to which producers have the largest ability to pump, Trostle said.
"The water in the Ogallala will move toward where it is being sucked down the fastest," he said. "It is a bit of a 'lose it or use it' conundrum. If your neighbor is pumping up to his limits, the water under your land will gravitate to that neighbor."
Trostle said he believes total alfalfa acres may be slightly smaller this year by necessity, because of the reduced water capacity. He also expects alfalfa yields to decline a bit because of the lack of irrigation.
The goal for Texas growers is to produce quality alfalfa for dairies to use, he said. This will save the dairies having to transport it in from other areas, although it is not uncommon for Texas dairies to purchase alfalfa from west Kansas or Colorado, which tend to produce a little higher quality alfalfa since their climate is a bit cooler.
DEALING WITH DECREASING IRRIGATION
In spite of the many conservation measures in place, there doesn't seem to be a slowdown in installing subsurface drip irrigation systems, which is a very efficient method of irrigation, Trostle noted.
Other methods to cope with decreasing pumping limits is splitting pivots: Have a half circle of a primary crop and a secondary crop on the other side which might require less water or water at a different time in the growing season.
"The most common is to have a half circle of cotton planted in early May, and have grain sorghum planted in early June on the other side," he said. "That way they don't overlap." The sorghum would be irrigated after the cotton.
Growers need to think about how best to irrigate their particular crop mix, for their individual operation, he advised. "They need to think in terms of how they can make irrigation work with what they've got. There are a lot of strategies to deal with that."
Cheryl Anderson can be reached at email@example.com
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