April 11, 2008

When the calendar turns to April, farm work normally is in high gear. But soggy fields are staying soggy, leaving the state’s grain producers with little opportunity to get any work accomplished.

“There’s no corn in the ground here at all,” said Rankin Powell, Union County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. “Over the past 10 years, we would generally have a good bit of corn in the ground by now and all our anhydrous ammonia (a nitrogen fertilizer). We’ve only put out about 10 percent of the anhydrous.”

Union County is the state’s top corn producing county, and Powell said farmers there generally begin planting corn in late March with the goal of having their 85,000 to 90,000 acres planted by April 15. Many of the Ohio River bottom fields were just beginning to see water recede before last week’s rainfall again raised water levels and continued flooding these fields.

So what’s to blame for these soggy conditions? Blame it on a weather maker called La Nina, said Tom Priddy, UK agricultural meteorologist. La Niña is cooler-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that impact global weather patterns. This weather maker brings wet winters, and that’s been the case this year. Some forecasts are calling for it to hang around into the spring and summer. But here’s the kicker. La Nina tends to turn off the water spigot in summer months.

So far 2008 has been wetter than normal for all but the southeastern part of the state. By the end of March, Henderson had already seen 10.8 inches more precipitation than normal. Other areas with above normal moisture included: Covington, 7.2 inches, Lexington, 5.9 inches, Louisville, 5.82 inches, Paducah, 4.80 inches and Princeton, 3.96 inches. However, Bowling Green was only 0.44 inches above normal through March, and Quicksand and Jackson both had below normal precipitation.

April isn’t starting off any better. Storms last week brought anywhere from around two to more than five inches of rainfall to the state meaning further delays for farmers. Rainfall chances are again in the forecast but hopefully not the flood makers of recent weeks.

“We’ve really been in the crosshairs,” Priddy said. “But maybe this will be the last of it, and we will head into a more normal pattern.”

Powell noted that if the rain would let up long enough for fields to dry and work to take place, farmers can make quick work of planting.

Planting corn in April and early May provides Kentucky farmers with the best chances of reaching optimum yields. Planting beyond early May increases the likelihood of lower yields.

“With today’s large equipment, our guys can get the bulk of their corn planted within a week,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to be an extended planting season.”

Some good news on the weather front is the 90-day forecasts call for a return to normal temperatures and precipitation, Priddy said. But that could be short lived. La Nina conditions generally have less of an impact in the springtime, but if it lasts into the summer, it could again have an impact on the state’s weather. Some weather models call for it to remain strong into the fall.

Priddy advises farmers to watch the southeastern United States. Drought conditions in this segment of the country have lessened this winter. But if the drought begins to deepen there as we move into late spring and summer, it likely will build northward into Kentucky, he said.

“La Nina is a big question,” he said. “As we shift into May and June, if it remains strong drier conditions are likely, and timely rains will be extremely important.”