Fear of Flooding: How to Monitor Midwest Soil Moisture With Gro

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After last year's flooding and delayed planting across the Midwest, growers are understandably concerned about a possible repeat of excess moisture conditions. Indeed, soil moisture data on the Gro Intelligence platform currently shows high levels of saturation in many important crop-producing areas, especially along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois and western Tennessee.

Of course, conditions could change dramatically before seeds need to go into the ground. But soil moisture data from SMOS, provided by European Space Agency satellites, is an excellent data series to follow ahead of planting season. Gro’s Prevent Plant model, developed last year to predict acreage prevented from planting after major flooding impacted the Midwest, proved soil moisture to be an important variable in determining the number of acres that were prevented from planting.

This chart, created using SMOS satellite data, shows recent soil moisture readings in the US Midwest broken down by county for major crop producing states. Areas along the southern Mississippi show the most highly saturated soil. Some regions, shown in gray, have incomplete data because snow and ice prevent accurate readings. Click on the image to track soil moisture measurements on the Gro web app.

Excess soil moisture affects crop productivity, as corn yields tend to decline in years when planting is delayed, a Gro analysis found. Many farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer in the fall, and floods leach that nitrogen from the soil. In addition, last fall’s weather-delayed harvest forced the USDA to hold back its final 2019 crop estimates, usually reported in the January WASDE. With greater-than-usual uncertainty about last year’s crop size and inventory levels, markets will be paying even closer attention to any factors that can affect planting trends this year.

As of January 28, many key corn-producing counties, including Christian County in Illinois, and Obion County in Tennessee, are setting seasonal record-high soil moisture readings. In 2018, 42 million bushels of corn were produced in Christian County, and 12 million bushels of corn were produced in Obion County. On the other hand, areas of central and northern Illinois, such as Bureau County, currently have soil moisture readings at or below normal.

With soil moisture varying widely across the US Corn Belt, Gro’s data will be an essential input to crop analysis during this spring’s planting season. Gro API clients can create more advanced, crop-weighted soil moisture models (as described here) to anticipate planting delays in all the major producing regions around the world. In addition to the near-real-time soil moisture readings from SMOS, the Gro platform has rainfall data, including the NOAA GFS forecasts, that can be used to predict soil moisture levels in order to further enhance planting models.

These charts show soil moisture readings this year (blue lines with markers) compared to the average, minimum, and maximum over the past 10 years. On the left, Christian County, Illinois, is currently at a decade high. On the right, average soil moisture in Juneau County, Illinois, is at the low end of the past decade’s range. 

Related Insights from Gro Intelligence

This insight was powered by the Gro platform, which enables better and faster decisions about factors affecting the entire global agricultural ecosystem. Gro organizes over 40,000 datasets from sources around the world into a unified ontology, which allows users to derive valuable insights such as this one. You can explore the data available on Gro with a free account, or please get in touch if you would like to learn more about a specific crop, region, or business issue.

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