The weather experts may be calling it a mild drought, but it's major if you're trying to push a corn or cotton crop into hard, dry ground. That was the situation being faced by many lower Southeastern growers during the last week in April.

Georgia State Climatologist David Stooksbury declared in late April that “mild” drought conditions had returned to the state. “An unusually dry period from October 2003 through March 2004 has led to dry soils and low stream flows across the state,” said Stooksbury.

Dry conditions also were hampering spring planting in parts of Alabama and Florida.

In the cool season — October through March — normal rainfall is able to recharge soil moisture, streams, groundwater, lakes and reservoirs,” explains Stooksbury. “Because of the dry, cool season, the soil moisture hasn't been adequately recharged. This is causing low stream flows and dropping water tables across Georgia.”

Low soil moisture is most critical south of the north Georgia mountains and north of an Albany-to-Macon-to-Lincolnton line, said Stooksbury. “In this region, soil moisture is lower than we would expect in late April in 19 out of 20 years. Soil moisture in the mountains and along the coast are at a level we would expect in one of five years in late April,” he said.

United States Geological Survey stream gauges were showing extremely low flows across the southern three-fourths of the state. Several places have stream flows that are 25 to 50 percent of normal for late April.

“Based on USGS data, groundwater levels were showing good recharge in February 2004,” said Stooksbury. “However, with record to near-record dryness in March through mid-April, groundwater levels are beginning to drop.”

The normal recharge season for groundwater is over, he says, so groundwater levels are expected to keep dropping through summer into fall.

“Because of abundant rainfall from September 2002 through June 2003, the state's major reservoirs are in good shape. However, smaller lakes and farm ponds are beginning to show mild drought impacts. Reservoir levels will begin to drop, too, without adequate rainfall soon,” he said.

Through the end of February, the state moisture conditions were in relatively good shape, thanks to a wet early 2003. After the dry March through mid-April, though, conditions began to turn dry fast.

There is little hope for short-term recovery, notes Stooksbury.

Now that we've entered late April, soil moisture loss through evaporation and transpiration (plant water use) is normally greater than rainfall. So, even with normal rainfall, the soils will keep drying out through early October.”

At least mild drought conditions are expected to continue through summer, so growers are advised to take extra measures to conserve water. Water conservation suggestions are available from your local University of Georgia Extension Service office.

Comprehensive updated drought information may be found at www.georgiadrought.org. Real-time weather conditions, including soil moisture balance, may be found at www.georgiaweather.net.

In some areas of Georgia, farmers were reporting that soil was too hard and dry to plow, and supplemental hay feeding continued. Land preparation for cotton, tobacco and peanuts was behind schedule. Irrigated corn and wheat appeared in good condition, according to the state's agricultural statistics service.

Soil moisture in most areas of Georgia was rated short to very short in late April.

Very little planting was reported in the Florida Panhandle during the last week in April. Corn and soybean planting had slowed, according to the state's agricultural statistics service, due to cold, dry soils. Many farmers were delaying peanut planting until the second week in May, to reduce the risk of tomato spotted wilt virus in their fields. North Florida's corn crop looked good where growers had irrigation, but overall the crop needed moisture. Some cotton had been dusted in, according to the report.

Soil moisture was reported to be short to very short throughout most of Florida, with Polk and Highlands counties being the exceptions with adequate moisture.

In the Panhandle, some squash was being harvested in late April, while watermelons and cantaloupes under irrigation were in very good condition. Vegetable planting was reported to be behind schedule due to cool nighttime temperatures.

Pastures in the Panhandle were short and regrowth was slow due to drought and cool nighttime temperatures.

Dry conditions also were playing havoc with spring planting in Alabama. Top soil moisture was rated from very short to adequate in most areas of the state.

In Houston County in southeast Alabama, county Extension agents reported that the lack of rainfall had forced cattle producers to continue feeding hay. In addition, low soil moisture levels were delaying row crop plantings. “Farmers face the critical situation of waiting to receive adequate rainfall while the spring planting clock ticks down,” reported agents.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com