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Hot, dry May brings
drought to parts of Indiana

Wheat crop

Rows of young corn grow in a field parched by unseasonable heat and lack of rain.
(Purdue Agriculture photo/Tom Campbell)


By Steve Leer, Jennifer Stewart & Keith Robinson
May 31, 2012

Little rain and unseasonably hot weather in May left part of northern and southwest Indiana in drought just a few weeks after farmers got off to a fast start by planting their crops earlier than normal.

Most of northern Indiana except for the far northwestern counties was abnormally dry, and 11 counties were worse off - either entirely or partly in moderate drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday (May 31). Seven counties in extreme southwest Indiana were in moderate drought, and others in the area were abnormally dry.

The Drought Monitor, a service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated weekly, reflected conditions as of May 29.

May in Indiana ended as the seventh consecutive month of above-normal temperatures and the fourth consecutive month of below-normal precipitation. That trend is expected to continue at least through mid-June, according to the Indiana State Climate Office, based at Purdue University.

Parts of Indiana got some relief, however, with periods of rain during the last days of May, offering encouragement to many farmers whose crops had to endure a hot, dry spell soon after seeds were planted.

"Things are trying to be normal, but it's like turning a ship - it takes a long time to come about, and time is ticking for the growing season," said Dev Niyogi, state climatologist.

What rain Indiana received in May was not enough to offset the greater loss of water through evaporation from the ground and through transpiration in plants, the climate office said. So the ground continued to dry out.

While dryness is expected to continue in northern Indiana, weather patterns in the central and southern counties could vary more because of the greater potential for rain from storms during the hurricane season - now under way - along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

How Purdue agriculture experts size up the development of various Indiana crops to date:

Corn: Some of the state's early-planted corn crop is already showing signs of drought stress, including wilting and leaf rolling. Plant mortality also has reduced populations in some fields, and root growth has been restricted. Because the crop is still young, however, a return to more normal growing conditions could turn the crop around - but it would need to happen soon.

Soybeans: Dry, hot growing conditions over the past few weeks have affected some of the early-planted soybeans, and those planted in the last two weeks. Early-planted soybeans are starting to show drought stress as the leaves are flipping over to reflect the sunlight. Early growth and plant processes, such as photosynthesis, nodule formation and nitrogen fixation are likely reduced under these growing conditions. Germination and emergence of recently planted soybeans has been uneven in many areas due to variable soil moisture. Some soybean seeds are still sitting in dry soil and in need of rain. Rain will relieve the early stress on plant growth and improve emergence of remaining fields.

Wheat: Wheat has been advanced most of the spring due to early break in dormancy and warm winter. Recent heat and water stress will continue to accelerate the maturation process and limit seed fill. Harvest has already started in the southern part of Indiana and will continue northward in the coming weeks. Producers need to be ready for an earlier harvest than normal, which bodes well for double crop soybeans. Double crop soybean planting will occur further north than normal, but soil moisture will be a concern for establishing soybeans across the state.

Alfalfa: The first cutting was not affected by the hot, dry weather because it came so late in the season. Subsequent cuttings, however, are likely to have reduced yields. With rainfall of 1 to 1.5 inches in the near future, the crop could rebound. But without meaningful rainfall, the yield decreases could lead to higher prices for hay.

Tree fruits: Crop conditions vary across the state following a series of freezes in early to mid-April that caused partial or complete crop losses in some apple orchards. Recent hot, dry weather generally has been beneficial to tree fruits because it has meant less fungicide spraying to control such diseases as apple scab.

Vegetables: Plants that are established and well irrigated - especially broccoli, lettuce and radishes - are thriving in the sunny and hot conditions. Those not receiving adequate water might experience reductions in yield and quality. Poorly watered tomatoes and peppers could be vulnerable to blossom end rot. Newly transplanted crops and young seedlings without well-developed root systems are struggling in dry soils and might not be able to establish plant stands strong enough to survive.

Berries: The May heat is accelerating the ripening of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Berry size should be good as long as growers irrigate their crops during the dry spell.

Melons: Irrigated watermelon and cantaloupe crops are growing rapidly. But many melon growers do not irrigate. Seedlings of non-irrigated crops have not put down extensive root systems and will need water soon to survive. Spider mites - a melon pest - like hot, dry conditions and have been a problem on many young seedlings. Foliar diseases have been minimal.

Grapes: Weather conditions have greatly decreased fungal disease pressure and should produce an excellent crop. Grapes are deep-rooted and generally tolerant of drought. Moisture stress reduces vegetative vigor, which leads to better fruit exposure and vine balance, and higher levels of color, mouth feel and structure.

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