Whenever you start behind, it’s hard to catch up, especially when it comes to soil moisture. That’s the situation many Southeastern farmers are facing this spring, as the region continues to try and break out of a rainfall deficit that began this past winter and is delaying the planting of peanuts and cotton.

Drought conditions described as “extreme” have now developed across areas of Alabama, Georgia and north Florida. This is the second most intense of the four drought levels — exceptional, extreme, severe and moderate. “Exceptional” droughts occur approximately once every half century.

Topsoil moisture ratings of short or very short stood at 29, 32, 50, 52, 61, and 89 percent in South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, respectively, in late April. Many producers had postponed planting until decent rains can boost moisture

“Extreme drought conditions have developed across southeast and south-central Georgia,” said State Climatologist David Stooksbury in late April. “Another week with little or no rain and temperatures in the 70s and 80s have led to worsening drought conditions statewide.”

Extreme drought now grips the southeast and south-central Georgia counties of Appling, Atkinson, Bacon, Berrien, Brantley, Brooks, Camden, Charlton, Clinch, Coffee, Cook, Echols, Glynn, Jeff Davis, Lanier, Lowndes, Pierce, Thomas, Ware and Wayne.

The drought is rated “severe” in Ben Hill, Bryan, Chatham, Colquitt, Evans, Grady, Irwin, Liberty, Long, McIntosh, Montgomery, Tattnall, Telfair, Tift, Toombs and Wheeler counties.

The remainder of south Georgia — where most of the state’s row crops are grown — is experiencing moderate to mild drought conditions.

Drought categories are based on many indicators, says Stooksbury. Some of these include rainfall over the past one, three, six and 12 months and soil moisture, stream flow and groundwater levels.

“Extreme drought conditions are defined as those we expect once in 50 years, based on the multiple indicators,” he says. “Severe drought conditions are those we expect once in 20 years, while mild drought conditions are once in 10 years.”

Rainfall deficits for the year in Georgia range from 5 to 12 inches.

Little if any relief from the drought is anticipated in the foreseeable future, says Stooksbury. “If Georgia has normal weather throughout the summer, the soils will continue to dry out, and stream flows and groundwater levels will continue to decrease. Water levels in reservoirs and farm ponds are expected to continue to be lower over the next several months,” he says.

In Alabama, extreme drought conditions currently are limited to the north-central area of the state. Most of the remainder of the state falls in the severe or moderate drought categories.

Some farmers in Alabama have started the production season with a year-to-date rainfall deficit of more than 13 inches, causing them to delay planting cotton and peanuts.

In Florida, soil moisture was rated mostly very short in the Panhandle, mostly short in the Big Bend and northern Peninsula, and very short to short over the central and southern peninsula. Field work was delayed in some areas due to hardened soils.

According to the Southeast Climate Consortium, the region continues to dry out but rainfall could return to “near-normal” later in the summer. The consortium is comprised of scientific experts in climatology, agriculture, hydrology, marine and atmospheric sciences, and economics from Florida State University, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, Auburn University, the University of Miami and the University of Alabama-Huntsville.

In spite of an El Niño of moderate strength forming in the Pacific Ocean last fall, it failed to bring the predicted excess rainfall and cooler temperatures to Florida, south Alabama, and south Georgia this winter, say the experts.

North Florida was the only area to receive near-normal rainfall this winter, while Alabama, northwest Georgia, and south Florida saw only 50 to 75 percent of normal winter precipitation. The entire area also saw winter temperatures ranging from 1 to 3 degrees F. above normal.

Winter rainfall is important for surface and groundwater recharge in Georgia and Alabama, as well as for establishing sufficient soil moisture for the spring planting season. The failure of ample rains during the winter means that soil moisture and groundwater levels were below normal for late March and falling.

Often following an El Niño winter, May and June tend to be drier than normal, say the weather experts. However, the early summer El Niño effects are less consistent than El Niño effects during winter months.

“In addition, El Niño has ended early this year and should not have any effect in early summer. With the Pacific Ocean temperatures having returned to near-normal, there is no indication that spring and summer months should be either wetter, drier, warmer or cooler than normal. Near normal temperatures and rainfall patterns is our best forecast, but there is limited confidence in the forecast.

For later in the summer (June and July), near-normal rainfall and temperatures is also the best forecast, say the experts. “With El Niño no longer affecting our climate, there is no forcing in the Pacific Ocean that should either enhance or delay the onset of the convective rainy season. Even if La Niña were to develop in the next couple of months, it has little to no impact on summer climate patterns of the Southeast, states the consortium.”

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com