Prevent-Plant Redux? Gro Data Shows US Soil Moisture Levels in Flux

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Gro Intelligence’s Prevent Plant Models will begin forecasting next month which areas of the US Midwest are likely to have planting problems because of overly wet soil. In the meantime, data in Gro currently is showing the region’s soil-moisture conditions are deeply in flux.

Soils in some key growing areas, such as along the Mississippi River, are at historically high moisture levels and more rain is forecast in those areas over the next two weeks. By contrast, other areas, including western Iowa and south central Missouri, are especially dry. Meanwhile, some counties that were worryingly wet recently appear to be returning to normal levels.

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, shown in dark blue. Dry areas are shown in red and orange. Click on the image to track soil moisture measurements on the Gro web app

Potential planting problems in the upcoming season are a widespread worry in the wake of flooding last year that prevented a record 12 million acres from being planted to corn and soybeans in the biggest-producing states. Gro’s corn and soybean Prevent Plant Models performed very well in their inaugural year, issuing reliable forecasts weeks ahead of official prevent-plant data from USDA FSA. Gro’s models, which rely on satellite-derived and ground-based data, forecast a combined 11.4 million prevent-plant acres in the biggest-producing states, differing from the FSA survey-derived estimate by just 5%.

Although planting across major corn and soybean producing states is still a few weeks away, current SMOS soil moisture data shows overly wet soils in some important growing areas that border the Mississippi River, including western Tennessee. Much of the soil along the lower stretch of the Mississippi River through Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana also appears saturated. Potentially compounding the problem, forecasts from NOAA GFS point to heavy rainfall over the next two weeks across Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

By contrast, some areas have experienced drier soils than usual over the past month, including western Iowa and south central Missouri.

Of course, conditions can change significantly before growers need to put seed in the ground. Recently, parts of northwest Ohio, which also had wetness problems in 2019, were again saturated. A problem for the region: Soils in northwest Ohio are largely poorly draining clay loams, SoilGrids data shows.

Among the affected areas is Mercer County, Ohio, the state’s sixth-largest corn and soybean producing county, which last year saw about 10% of its acreage prevented from planting because of high soil moisture. Soil moisture levels were 56% higher than average in Mercer County a week ago, but have since fallen to 23% below average, according to the latest SMOS reading from Feb. 24. However, NOAA GFS is currently forecasting moderate rainfall for the county for next week.

Similarly, soil moisture in parts of central Illinois was at a decade high in early February but is now returning to more normal levels.

In Mercer County, Ohio, soil moisture levels dropped sharply after Feb. 21 (see green line with markers) from above average levels to below average. But more rain is forecast for next week (blue line with markers). Soil moisture averages and range are shown by a dashed green line and green shaded area, respectively. Mercer County last year saw about 10% of its acreage prevented from planting because of high soil moisture. Click to link to an interactive display on the Gro web app.

Gro’s prevent-plant models, available exclusively through the Gro API, are expected to go live for the 2020 season in early April to provide updates on crops across the Corn Belt. The machine-learning-based models, which proved reliable in backtesting over the previous 10 years, combine data on soil moisture, precipitation, soil surveys, and other variables, including crop-planting progress reports from USDA NASS.

Prevent-plant estimates are important because they have a direct effect on final production numbers. In addition, prevent plant can cause a shift of acreage into soybeans and away from corn. That’s because area that is too wet to plant to corn might dry out sufficiently in time to sow soybeans, which are planted later than corn.

Crawford and other counties in south central Missouri have experienced low soil moisture over the past few weeks (green line with markers). Crawford County’s latest reading puts its soil moisture level at 33% below average, but more precipitation is expected through mid-March (blue line with markers). Click to link to an interactive display on the Gro web app.

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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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