/ Blog

Midwest Drought Conditions Post-Harvest

December 18, 2023

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that our concerns regarding the lack of rainfall are past us once the crop is out of the ground. A drought naturally puts crop production at risk, but dry conditions post-harvest also have long-term impacts on farming operations.

The 2023 growing season was dry over much of America’s heartland. Very little rain fell in the Midwest in May and June causing the “drought” classification to be used during a critical growing period. Long-term rainfall shortages and soil moisture need to be considered: in Midwest states including Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Minnesota “2-year precipitation deficits are on the order of 16-20 inches” according to Drought.gov. Subsoil water levels are diminished across the region, mainly at lower levels, so normal winter month precipitation will be essential for the 2024 growing season.


Image: 24-month departure from normal precipitation across the Midwest from October 17, 2021–October 16, 2023. The colors represent the deficit of precipitation compared to normal (in inches), with orange to red values below normal, yellow and light green near normal, and dark green to purple above normal. Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center ACIS Maps.

Maintaining Soil Health

How do growers protect their soil health during these long-term dry conditions? Conservation practices such as cover crops, no-till, or crop rotations help build more drought-resistant soil by increasing the natural water-holding capacity of the land. Healthy soil captures more water when it does rain because it acts like a sponge holding onto water for future crop use.

When rain falls on a field with compacted soil, the water quickly runs off before being able to infiltrate. Research shows that an approximate 1% increase in soil organic matter (a gauge of soil health) enhances water storage potential on an acre by more than 20,000 gallons. This is a strong incentive for farmers to seek out practices that improve resiliency.

Transportation Capacity

Another direct effect of the continued lack of rainfall is low river levels that impact agriculture supply chains. The Mississippi River is a critical network for goods transportation and the Bureau of Transportation cites, “In 2020, the river carried more than half of the 165.5 million tons that moved between the 12 states touching the Upper Mississippi System and Louisiana.” (BTS transportation quote). A majority of the Upper Mississippi River is currently tracking at or below low flow thresholds. Northbound transport is the first issue as barges moving agricultural inputs north, for example - fertilizer - can be limited. This also reduces the number of available barges for ensuing southbound trips.

Southbound Transportation

Midwest agriculture greatly depends on the Mississippi River for farm-goods transport. In the last couple of years, the Mississippi River was the mode of shipping for “93 percent of the cereal grain between Illinois and Louisiana, compared to 6 percent by rail, and… 82 percent of other agricultural products… compared to 15 percent by rail and 3 percent by truck.” (BTS transportation quote)

When transport barges are unable to navigate the river due to abnormally low water levels this causes terminals to limit the amount of grain they can accept. Grain stuck in a transportation bottleneck impacts farmers in the form of a wider/negative basis. This is felt more keenly by those who have less on-farm grain storage or have contracts where the basis is set near or at delivery. This situation has the potential to drive up farmer’s costs as they must either accept a lower price or haul to a different, often further, delivery point.

Peoples Company’s Land Management team is well-versed in addressing farm resiliency when we experience volatility in weather, marketing, and production factors. Please reach out at 855.800.5263 or by email at LandManagement@peoplescompany.com to learn more.

Midwest deficits quote https://www.drought.gov/drought-status-updates/drought-status-update-midwest-us-2023-10-19#:~:text=In%20some%20areas%20(Iowa%3B%20Missouri,for%20the%202024%20growing%20season.

US Map https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/data/png/20231121/20231121_usdm.png

Midwest map https://hprcc.unl.edu/maps.php?map=ACISClimateMaps

Maintaining soil health reference (not directly quoted) https://cropsandsoils.extension.wisc.edu/articles/the-important-role-of-soil-texture-on-water/#:~:text=For%20each%201%20%25%20increase%20in,loam%20with%201%25%20organic%20matter.

Transportation quote https://www.bts.gov/data-spotlight/low-water-mississippi-slows-critical-freight-flows

Barge photo https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/high-barge-rates-fewer-river-cruise-stops-as-drought-shrinks-mississippi-near-st-louis/article_52c3e05c-6bd8-568b-ab7

Published in: Land Management