Drought spreading across Illinois on the verge of stressing farmers’ crops

A dry May is beginning to stress local agriculture crops, like this corn field. Brief rain this week was spotty across the region and has not helped with most soil moisture content. Most fields are dependent on Mother Nature providing moisture for yields for corn and soybeans.

OREGON – The corn on Keith Poole’s rural Polo farm is reaching a critical point in its development and the lack of rain is certainly not helping.

“Ideally, you don’t want the corn to be stressed when it’s determining how big it’s going to be,” Poole said. “We need rain in the next few days or week to make sure it’s not stressed when determining how big an ear it’s going to make.”

The soybeans on his farm haven’t grown in about a week, and he’s uncertain if their roots are going down into the ground as fast as the moisture is coming out.

After spring got off to a wet start with multiple storm systems rolling through the area in late March and early April, the region hasn’t seen much precipitation, meteorologist Jake Petr said.

This pattern of dryness has led to one of the driest Mays on record because of the jet stream — the flow of air in the atmosphere — forming a “blocking pattern,” meteorologist Todd Kluber said.

The pattern is leading the atmosphere to not move much, which is causing the concentration of a high pressure system over the northern Illinois region, he said.

“That has basically kept all the precipitation and moisture south of the area,” Kluber said.

As a result, much of the northern region has been stuck with sunny skies and little rain, Kluber said. It also caused May to be the fourth driest on record dating back to 1871 and the driest in almost 30 years, Petr said.

“There’s nothing you can do other than hope you get a rain,” Ogle County Farm Bureau Manager Ron Kern said. “I imagine if you’re an irrigator, it gets to a point where, if the drought gets critical, you can turn that on. But that’s not an option for a lot of people.”

Most of the farms in Ogle County don’t have irrigation systems because the soil and subsoil has more clay and tends to hold water better, said Poole, who is one of those without. Irrigation usually is used when the soil is sandier and, thus, doesn’t hold water as well. Irrigation systems are used on some farms in Carroll, Lee and Whiteside counties.

The dryness also is impacting some of the Oregon Park District’s operations, OPD Executive Director Erin Folk said. Watering all the plants on the district’s properties – including at Nash Recreation Center – is taking up more of the responsible employees’ time, she said.

“We’re spending a lot more time and detail on watering,” Folk said. “The grass and turf is starting to look the way it would in mid-July, not early June. So we’re getting a little concerned with that as well.”

While Folk expects an increase in the district’s water bill, she didn’t yet know what that number will be.

The U.S. Drought Monitor grades droughts on a scale from D0, or “abnormally dry,” to D4, or “exceptional drought,” according to its website.

As of June 6 – the date of the most recent map – 47.62% of Illinois is under D0 and 49.03% is under D1, or “moderate drought,” according to the website. Ogle, Whiteside and Lee counties are under D0, but the areas labeled D1 spread over the last week to encompass much of the central and northwest portion of the state.

Looking ahead, it’s not expected to get much better, Petr said. With June here and summer on the horizon, there won’t be much of a chance for rainy weather to take the region out of its drought, and the minimal storms that have been in the area in recent weeks aren’t enough.

Getting out of it would take several large storm systems, which no outlook is calling for at this point, Petr said.

“Be prepared for kind of a warm, dry summer ahead,” he said.

Poole said the only good thing about the dry weather is the quality of the hay he’s been able to produce.

“If it [hay] gets rained on after it’s been cut, you lose some of the nutrient value,” he said. “If it’s baled too wet, you can get mold issues. If you want to make dry hay, you’ve got to let it dry on the ground and bale it around 12%-15% moisture. When it’s rainy or cloudy, it takes longer to get down to that.”

The hay yield still is down because of the cold earlier in the year, but the quality is excellent, Poole said. Hay is a small portion of his operation, but “you’ve got to look for the high spots with this dryness.

“If we don’t get any rain by next Friday, I’ll probably be singing a little different tune,” Poole said. “The sooner it rains, the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

• Northwest Herald reporter James T. Norman and Herald-News reporter Felix Sarver contributed to this story.

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Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner reports on Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties for Shaw Media out of the Dixon office. Previously, she worked for the Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Michigan, and the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.