In 2011, Missouri experienced a short drought. Although the drought lasted less than six months, University of Missouri experts said the drought was severe and could have long lasting effects on agriculture in the state. They said the drought dried soil five feet below the surface, the depth where mature plants’ roots seek nutrition and moisture.

“This drought will have a serious effect on the Missouri agricultural economy,” said Mike Collins, professor and director of plant sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR). “This could cost the state’s soybean producers $300 million in 2011.”

Randall Miles, professor of soil science in CAFNR, serves as the director of MU’s Sanborn Field, one of the oldest agricultural research plots in the United States. In the late 1980s during a similar dry spell, Miles said corn yields at Sanborn were only 40 bushels per acre compared to 120 bushels during a year with good rainfall.

This year, the short drought occurred after a relatively normal season in 2010 and early 2011. In southwest Missouri, June and July precipitation was 2.3 inches, or 72 percent below the normal rainfall during those months. Dry conditions continued throughout the fall. October 2011 ranked among the 10 driest Octobers on record.

“At this point, we need approximately 16 to 18 inches of rainfall, or more than 13 feet of snow to ensure a strong crop in the spring,” Miles said. “People think the problem is solved if we get a few good rains. Heavy rain will only put moisture into the first few inches of soil. We’ll need extraordinarily persistent rains for the moisture to get down five feet where the roots of mature plants live. It could take many weeks or months for that to happen.”

Miles said the problem is more difficult to solve in Missouri than in some other states because Missouri does not have readily available ground water and is not set up for large scale irrigation. In addition, the needed rainfall cannot come in a few heavy downpours because much of the water will run off the soil instead of soaking into the ground.

Miles said the 2012 Missouri corn crop will see the greatest effects, due to when it is planted. Soybeans and winter wheat planted late in the year may also have lower yields if dry conditions persist. To establish themselves, these plants need water closer to the soil surface. Later, as the roots grow deeper, some plants, such as winter wheat will need moisture at deeper levels.

The lack of recent rainfall is already having an impact on Missouri’s important cow-calf production. Many ranchers are not selling their surplus hay, assuming that forage will disappear early next year because of the dry conditions. Some are considering culling animals as is being done in drought-stricken Oklahoma and Texas.