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Mizzou Wire

High and dry

Mizzou takes on the drought

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Aug. 23, 2012

Summer has been painful. As temperatures have hovered at, near or above the 100-degree mark with little or no rain, Missouri, like much of the central United States, is suffering from a significant lack of moisture.

The story of the 2012 Missouri drought began in March with the onset of the warmest spring on record. As the record-setting weather trends continued into August, heat indexes climbed to 110 degrees, radiating the simmer of desert-like heat.

Missouri State Climatologist Patrick Guinan says the state is in “severe or exceptional drought,” something it hasn’t experienced in a generation.

Month after month, cities across Missouri and surrounding states have set new marks for temperature highs and precipitation lows. Missouri’s drought hit southeastern Missouri in April and now extends across the entire state.

Adding to the misery is the magnitude and scope of the drought. More than two-thirds of the nation is in some form of moisture deficit, and July 2012 was the hottest ever recorded in the United States.

“Historic and abysmal,” is Guinan’s description of Missouri’s recent temperature and rain records — a springlike drought that transitioned into a heat wave and drought. “That’s a one-two punch. It’s bad enough having one of those, and we have them back to back,” he says.

Difficult by degree

We may be feeling the heat, but for the record books, the drought of 2012 doesn't begin to challenge the dry years of 1952-56, which Guinan describes as the “mother of all droughts impacting Missouri.” Rainfall during that five-year period averaged nearly 50 inches below normal.

This year's drought is, however, the most severe in recent history.

“This year will become entrenched in our memories for the rest of our life. That shows how unusual our spring and summer have been. It’s heat we haven’t seen in 30 years,” Guinan says.

The five hottest years previously were 1901, 1934, 1936, 1954 and 1980, especially the months of June, July and August. 

With the media seeking perspectives on the record temperatures and drought, Guinan, a University of Missouri Extension assistant professor of climatology, has recorded many of his observations and a monthly update of weather statistics at

And Guinan’s prediction for the rest of the summer isn’t encouraging: Above-normal temperatures are expected to continue, and rainfall doesn’t look promising. “But we could see an abrupt pattern change in the fall,” he says.

For additional analysis of the record-breaking heat wave, check out CAFNR News.

High and dry

A 9-12-inch rain deficit for spring and early summer has put Missouri’s fields and vegetation in severe drought stress. Pastures are crunchy underfoot, lawns have turned brown and even established trees are showing signs of stress.

A significant amount of rainfall is needed to replenish water resources above and below ground, but it may be too late to save the stunted and shriveled crops. The state’s corn crop is predominantly lost, and soybean yields — typically a $3 billion business in Missouri — are questionable.

MU agriculture economics alumnus B.W. (Perk) Hoecker, who farms 600 acres of soybean and corn fields 14 miles northwest of Columbia, sees some positives in this summer’s yield compared to that of the early 1950s. 

“There was no grain in that fifties drought corn. We had zero yield. We harvested it into silage to feed the cattle,” he says.

This year Hoecker, who practices no-till farming, expects to harvest about 40-130 bushels of corn per acre, depending on the ground. That’s about half the yield of a typical year’s crop of 150-210 bushels. Hoecker’s soybean plants are producing 26 and 27 pods per stalk. Under normal rain conditions, those plants would produce more than 50 pods. 

Hoecker attributes the difference in yields during the two droughts to the improved hybrids he now plants.

“The primary difference is in the genetics. The corn has improved that much,” he says.

Preparing for future droughts

Drought is an important factor worldwide, and the concern of MU plant-science researchers centers on how to protect future crops from the stress of inadequate water. 

Researchers are studying how roots respond and adapt to drought, essential information for the development of new breeds of drought-tolerant plants, which could increase yields, as farmers such as Hoecker have experienced.

Two drought simulators at MU’s Bradford Research and Extension Center, located east of Columbia, allow plant scientists to study corn and soybean plants under field conditions, where the amount of water they receive ranges from dry to severe drought.

Resembling 50-by-100-foot greenhouses on railroad tracks, the simulators move to cover plants when rain approaches, providing information on how less water affects plants and their yield.

Although the simulators were deployed only a handful of times this year, they will be invaluable during rainy seasons.

Plant responses to drought are complex, says Professor Robert Sharp, director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group. The IPG is a community of faculty, students, postdocs and staff specialists in plant sciences across departments and colleges.

“The tests are difficult to do in the field," says Sharp, whose lab work has focused on a long-term study of drought. "Sometimes we have too much water, so to do detailed research we need facilities allowing us to impose drought treatment on our plants. Too much rain ruins the experiments,” 

Drought is a complex problem, Sharp points out, and Mizzou's team of experts is tackling it in the long term, from the lab to the field.

Getting help

MU Extension specialists say these drought-related topics are on the minds of Missouri residents: insect pests in drought conditions, crop-insurance considerations, lawn care, wildfires, water sources for cattle, community water supplies, higher consumer prices for food, air-conditioning maintenance and budgets.

To assist state residents, MU Extension has developed online resources:

Read more in:  Agriculture & the EnvironmentScience & TechnologyBeyond CampusFamily & CommunityBusiness, Law & Politics

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Last updated: June 6, 2013