When Will Soils Recharge?

Now is the time, but where are the rains?

Published on: Nov 12, 2007

One problem facing 4-H and FFA soil judgers at the state contest, held the first week of November in recent years, is battling wet soils. Sometimes contest organizers must pump water out of pits, especially on poorly drained soils. That certainly wasn't the case this past weekend in Jackson County. Practice pits were dug south of US 50, with the contest on Saturday located about two miles north of US 50 near Brownstown.

Nearly every pit, whether it was a poorly drained soil or not, was powder dry at four feet deep. Five of the 12 practice sites were flood plains, most on the poorly drained side, yet the bottoms of the pits were powder dry. In fact, soils were so dry that it was difficult for judgers to evaluate the soils. Textures were hard to do, since they're usually obtained and estimated by rubbing moist soil between the fingers.

Farmers in central Indiana digging trenches for various on-farm construction projects in the past week have reported the same thing- even in areas that received decent rainfall in October, dig down about 2-3 feet, and the soil becomes powder dry. Rains may come, but it will take several inches of water to turn things around.

What's noteworthy is that this is usually the time do year when soils recharge with moisture for next season. There are no growing plants to continually draw moisture out by evaporation and transpiration. Plus, physical soil processes are such that water that falls generally moves rather easily deeper into the subsoil. Jim Newman, retired ag climatologist, always rates November through fall and into early winter as the key time for soil moisture recharge in Indiana.

Unless the rainfall patterns switch quickly, that may not be a good sign for the next growing season. Newman contends that droughts are sometimes made in the off-season, not during the growing season. What he means, of course, is that going into spring with subsoils not fully recharged sets up crops for damage from drought, even if rainfall isn't as short that season as it is in other seasons. You need not look any further back than 1988 for a classic example of what happens when soils aren't recharged, and spring is early, warm and dry. The result was one of Indiana's worst crop years- one that farmers still gauge dry weather today by.

Whether rain will come soon to turn this low moisture problem around soon or not is a 'wait and see' proposition. Obviously, there is plenty of time for ample rains. Even excessive rains, to fall before next growing season. But it's a factor that deserves watching as you prepare input and marketing plans for next season.