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Spring weather outlook for South Dakota hard to predict

Melting snow in eastern South Dakota is increasing soil moisture, with more precipitation likely in March. Erin Wicker / Special to Agweek

ABERDEEN, S.D. — While the region has enjoyed a mild winter, the agriculture industry is anxious to see what conditions spring will bring. Reliable research and information might give farmers and ranchers an idea of what to expect.

Laura Edwards, state climatologist at the South Dakota State University Extension Office, spends her days studying weather patterns and interpreting what it means for South Dakota agriculture.

"Throughout this winter, we've seen a change of pattern every 2-3 weeks," Edwards said. "This indicates that we could see more cold weather following this pattern, but it could stay warm. It's a tough call."

Edwards received her Bachelor of Arts degrees in physics and French from the University of Minnesota and Master of Science in meteorology from the University of Maryland. With the Extension Service, she collaborates with colleagues in agronomy and animal science specializations to create a weather forecast for growing conditions, calving and lambing, manage drought and be a resource in short- and long-term planning and management. Edwards specializes in meteorology and climatology and how it impacts South Dakota farms and ranches.

Right now, data indicates dry conditions the next couple weeks. However, March is likely to be on the wet side. Whether the March precipitation comes as rain or snow will depend on temperatures. The climate models Edwards and other climatologists study show temperatures in March leaning on the warmer side, which may continue into April, but that is less certain.

The majority of snow accumulation is melting now, and the moisture from that snow is in the soil.

"The soil moisture is both good news and bad news," Edwards said.

With the snow melting early, there is the possibility for an early spring that would allow farmers to start planting crops early. However, especially in the watersheds on the eastern side of the state, there is the possibility for areas to be too wet to get started. The precipitation expected in March also will factor into that.

The James River Valley in the east central part of the state will be closer to average, and the western side of the state will be drier yet.

The recent warm and dry conditions have melted a lot of snow quickly. Without the snow cover, soil is not insulated and will warm up and thaw quicker. By April, soil temperatures should be right for planting, if nothing changes.

While some conditions are yet to be seen, there is positive news for producers: Edwards is not worried about drought in the eastern Dakotas.

On the contrary, the Red River Valley watershed is likely to see flooding in the Fargo, N.D., area. The most current data showed a 75 to 90 percent chance of reaching a flood state and 25 to 50 percent chance of exceeding a moderate flood state.

"Conditions for the spring look positive, but anything can happen in March — that's a wild card," Edwards said. "That precipitation could come as rain or snow, we will just have to see how it evolves."

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