By JOHN O'CONNELL
ARBON VALLEY, Idaho -- After a dry start to 2013, eastern Idaho's dryland growers finally got near-average moisture in April to stimulate growth in winter wheat and help establish their spring crops.
Furthermore, a cool spring has led snowpack to melt slowly, allowing it to soak into the soil where it can do dryland crops the most good.
Nonetheless, the outlook for dryland growers remains mixed due to below-average moisture in January through March, coupled with prolonged strong winds drying fields as they till.
Precipitation in eastern Idaho ranged in April from 125 percent of normal in Salmon Falls to 92 percent of normal from Henry's Fork to Oakley, said Natural Resources Conservation Service water specialist Ron Abramovich.
Moisture in the Bear River drainage was 119 percent of average, and the Blackfoot River drainage received 109 percent of average precipitation. The Little Lost River drainage was the exception to the favorable precipitation report, receiving just 32 percent of normal April moisture.
"I'm sure (the moisture) is going to help but not put a big dent in their overall needs. It's probably what they need to get their crops started," Abramovich said. "The wind is still blowing and hasn't stopped for awhile."
Though snow-melt has absorbed well into soils, Abramovich emphasized there was little snowpack this season at middle to low elevations, where dryland growers tend to farm.
Arbon Valley dryland grower Darrel Ward is pleased by his winter wheat's survival. His stand hasn't grown very tall this spring due to cold weather, but he believes a few timely summer rains could change that.
"We got moisture last fall to where we're starting out better than last year," Ward said. "If it rains at the right time there's potential, but it all depends on what the weather does from here on out."
He's direct seeding his spring wheat, which should protect the soil from drying in the wind.
Ward's neighbor, Ryan Weston, lost a lot of his winter wheat to exposure when wind blew off winter snow cover and may have to replant. He's also found strong winds have dried tilled soils quickly when he's planted spring crops.
"A lot of what I've been plowing is powdery lately," Weston said.
Based on moisture concerns, Weston has scaled back planting of hard red spring wheat to 200 acres, planting 850 acres of safflower instead to take advantage of the crop's deep taproot.
Rockland, Idaho, dryland grower Scott Wegner said timely fall rain germinated his 1,800 acres of winter wheat.
"The winter crops are looking good. There's been very minimal winter kill," Wegner said, adding moisture is limited for spring crops, which are always a gamble.
Soda Springs, Idaho, dryland grower Sid Cellan said wind gusts of up to 50 mph have made for tough planting conditions.
"The last seven or eight days, every time I work a field the wind is blowing, and it just dries it out," Cellan said.
However, he's pleased by his winter wheat survival and optimistic about spring crops.
"I know we've got enough moisture to hopefully get them up," Cellan said.