With a large portion of the U.S. facing unusually dry conditions or some level of drought, many farmers are getting concerned about the prospects for the 2021 harvest. While most of the Corn Belt is currently not experiencing drought, conditions are expected to worsen in upcoming months, and the season could end up similar to 2012, which saw abnormally dry conditions over approximately 80% of the contiguous United States. According to Andrew Badger, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “the underlying conditions of the megadrought that are present now were present for the 2012-2013 drought.”

No-till is often credited with increasing organic matter in the soil, and therefore helping improve moisture retention in dry years. Crop residue left on the soil surface can help retain moisture as well, and of course not tilling the soil means below-ground moisture is conserved rather than being released during tillage events.

Cover crops can also help manage moisture, but it’s important to understand how the timing of cover crop termination plays a role in managing soil moisture levels. In wet springs, cover crop are great for taking up excess moisture. But Tony Vyn, (speaking at this summer’s National Strip-Tillage Conference in Omaha) professor of cropping systems at Purdue University, recently noted that terminating covers 10-14 days prior to planting will preserve soil moisture for the following cash crop. In addition, the dead cover crop biomass will serve as a mulch to retain moisture in the soil.

While the drier than normal conditions has facilitated planting for many farmers this spring — and frankly, came as a pleasant change after the past 3 years of soggy spring conditions — it may mean shifting management plans throughout the season. As it may be useful to prepare for potential issues, we’ve compiled links to several research articles related to managing crops during and after drought conditions.

  • Soybeans need less moisture than corn, so reconsidering crop rotation could be in order.
  • According to the NRCS, drought can create compliance issues with conservation plans, so it’s important to work with the NRCS if affected.
  • Early-maturing soybeans were more prone to pre-harvest shattering in 2012. Soybean harvest losses can be mitigated with these tips for combine settings.
  • If drought is severe enough, harvesting corn may not be economical. Calculating nutrient removal depends upon what is done with the stunted crop.
  • In situations of reduced yields or crop failure after drought, harvest choices will affect next year’s fertilizer needs. As such, soil testing will be critical for proper management in 2022.
  • Drought can impact soil rhizobia populations, so soybean variety choices for 2022 will be critical to avoid white mold and lodging.
  • Cover crops can help retain moisture, increase soil organic matter, bust up compaction and sequester nutrients, all of which can lead to a more resilient farm that can better withstand unusually wet or dry conditions.

Related Content: Adapting Cover Crop Termination Timing to Manage Soil Moisture