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When it rains, it pours

Drought over, now soil's too wet to plant

Larry Hummel, who grows corn and soybeans southeast of Dixon, thinks this year's yield will be average or above average – if only the soil dries out enough so that farmers can get their corn in the ground by mid-May.
Larry Hummel, who grows corn and soybeans southeast of Dixon, thinks this year's yield will be average or above average – if only the soil dries out enough so that farmers can get their corn in the ground by mid-May.

STERLING – Dixon farmer Larry Hummel says it feels like the rainfall has gone from 0 to 100 in 3.2 seconds.

While last year's planting season was plagued by drought, the area has received plenty of rain this year and is fully recovered, according to several farmers and meteorologists.

In fact, by April 30, the entire state was declared drought-free by the National Drought Mitigation Center.

No wonder: Lee County received 6.6 inches of rain in April, 14.76 inches so far this year. By this time last year, only 5.11 inches of rain had fallen, said meteorologist Gino Izzy with National Weather Service in Romeoville.

Whiteside County saw 8.79 inches of rain in April and 15.95 inches to date – 7.53 inches more than the 8.42 inches that had fallen in the first 4 months of last year, said meteorologist Ray Wolf of National Weather Service in the Quad Cities.

In early August the drought was considered severe, extreme or exceptional in all of Illinois, with the exception of parts of Cook and four other counties to the west and south of it.       

In fact, conditions now are so wet that farmers have put off planting longer than they would like. To make matters worse, it's been a cool spring, which results in lower evaporation rates.

"March came around 6 to 9 degrees below normal for March and [April] has been pretty cold as well," said Tom Phillp, also a NWS meteorologist in the Quad Cities.

He expects the rest of the season to warm up, though, Philip said.

For now, many area farmers' drain tiles are working overtime. The tiles are pipes that funnel water into nearby waterways, and when they have a lot of water running through them, it's a sign that the soil is saturated.

Now farmers are looking for warm, sunny days – they don't like to plant until the soil gets to be about 50 degrees, said Hummel, 57, who grows corn and soybeans southeast of Dixon.

"It would be nice to have 70 or 80 degrees," Hummel said. "That's what makes for nice planting conditions. You want to get it up and growing and off to a good start – that takes moisture and warm temperatures."

Hummel might be getting his wish: Temperatures are forecast in the mid- to high 70s the rest of this week, although the back half of the week looks a bit rainy, according to the NWS forecast.

Ground temps 4 inches under the sod were in the mid-50s to low 60s Thursday, according to the Illinois State Water Survey.

"Going into last year, we had plenty of subsoil moisture, but it turned dry and the crops used all of that," Hummel said. "We were fortunate last year we had the subsoil going in. It took all of that, and we still came up short.

"It was critical going into this year to replenish the moisture, that there's some moisture down deep to keep the crops going," he said.

"There's plenty of moisture down there deep [deeper than 12 inches] now," he said.

Hummel thinks this year's yield will be average or above average – better than last year. But farmers must have corn planted by the end of the second week of May, he said.

"I'm ready for it to start warming up and get the fields ready so we can get some work done," he said.

Ed Habben, 51, who farms northwest of Sterling, said the rain is "kind of a double-edged sword," he said. "We need the rain, but we also need to get the crops planted.

"Subsoil moisture is being recharged," he said. "It was dry from the surface down – clear down 5 to 6 feet deep, it was dry."

"With cooler temperatures, it's not going to dry out as fast as it would if it was in the 80s," he said. "We kind of want that, so we can get in the fields, but at the same time it's not going to deplete the soil moisture, it won't be as rapid."

Farmers need 2 to 3 inches of the surface to be dry before they can proceed, he said.

Habben is cautiously optimistic about this year's crop. He expects an above-average yield, but he, too, expects that bumper will be lost if planting comes later than May 10 or 15.

Randy Faber, 59, who farms south of Sublette, holds out a bit more hope. Ideally planting should be done by May 10, but sometimes corn planted later can do better than crops planted earlier, he said.

"Last year there was a slight delay the first of May and some corn didn't get planted until the fifth or 10th of May, and it outyielded the corn that was planted mid-April."

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