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Corn stalks from last season's harvest stick out of the snow in a field in Hanson County in January. Snowfall this year is lower than usual, officials said, especially in the western and northern parts of South Dakota. (Matt Gade / Republic)

SD climatologist: 'Prepare for another drought year'

Farmers across South Dakota may be battling dry conditions this year as agriculture experts say drought or near-drought conditions could cause trouble during planting and beyond.

South Dakota State Climatologist Laura Edwards said snowfall this year has been lower than usual — especially in the central and western areas of the state — which could cause a lack of moisture for the foreseeable future.

"Looking further ahead, April through July, I think it is in the back of many of our minds to prepare for another drought year," Edwards said. "We will be very reliant upon spring and summer precipitation, which is not guaranteed."

But while moisture levels may be low, Edwards said the situation "is not too concerning at this point," especially in the southeastern part of South Dakota, which is holding more moisture than elsewhere.

Anthony Bly, a soils field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension based in Sioux Falls, highlighted areas of Kingsbury, Lake, Brookings, Moody, Hamlin and Deuel counties as having plenty of soil moisture. He believes many areas in the eastern third of the state could have strong planting conditions.

"It is pretty much a wait-and-see situation," Bly said.

Agronomy field specialist Sara Berg, also with SDSU Extension, said winter moisture is "probably the number one factor" that impacts spring planting.

"Areas that haven't seen average amounts of snowfall may suffer more due to being dry the past growing season," Berg said.

According to Berg, snow can recharge the soil, provide insulation and prevent wind erosion.

But if it takes too long to melt, farmers struggle with flooding, so Berg said there are no ideal winter temperatures or conditions, especially in South Dakota.

"Since no year is perfect, we usually adapt as things happen and plan accordingly as best as farmers can," Berg said.

Instead, Berg suggested spring temperatures could play a bigger role. Berg said soil temperature of at least 50 degrees is ideal for corn and soybean germination.

That point usually occurs in late spring. On average, 50 percent of farmers in south-central South Dakota finish planting by May 22, and 90 percent finish by June 2.

"It's hard to say how that may change this year. It really depends on the spring temperatures and if germination can occur as early as we would like to see," Berg said. "Time will tell."

While the soil isn't holding as much water as producers would like, Berg still isn't calling the current climate a drought. But if moisture doesn't come during the spring, that's exactly what the state could be facing.

"It would have to be a string of events to say, 'We will for sure have a drought,' " she said.