Although corn still rules much of the Great Plains, some farmers are shifting to less thirsty crops, thanks to warmer weather and a dwindling ancient aquifer.

While corn still is king in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska, soybeans will be the top crop again in Missouri’s spring plantings, according to agronomists in the region.

“We’d expect soybeans to be the number-one crop in Missouri again this year, at least in terms of planted area,” declared Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

“Because of the excessive rains last spring, a lot of Missouri farmland never got planted. If we have more normal weather this spring, the total area planted to major crops could rebound by a million acres or more,” he said.

“Weather conditions matter and can affect both the total amount of land planted and the mix of crops.  Prices for almost all the major crops are as low or lower than they were a year ago,” Westhoff noted.

This rebound would bring Missouri’s soybean acreage tally to the 5.65 million acres planted in 2015, surpassing Kansas’ expected soybean planting acreage of 4 million.

While Missouri’s plantings have been hampered by rain, in Kansas and some of the surrounding states, fear of drought and depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer are on the minds of producers.  Although state officials have mandated meters on water wells, the aquifer is not being replenished as quickly as it is being used up, according to agronomists.

“There is less water (and warmer temperatures). It’s a fact of life,” said Bill Golden, agricultural economist at Kansas State University. As a result, farmers are growing more sorghum, now at 2.5 million acres, because it takes less water than corn and its demand in feedlots makes it profitable, Golden noted.

Likewise, in neighboring Oklahoma, though corn still is dominant, farmers are planting more sorghum, “because it can handle drought better than corn,” said Brian Arnall, assistant professor and an agriculture extension specialist at Oklahoma State University.

“Drought has been a problem since Oklahoma statehood. It’s a constant force regionally,” Arnall explained.

Consequently, as some producers look at reduced irrigation, they are planting diverse crops of sorghum, cotton, soybeans and even sesame seeds, Arnall said. “A lot of planting decisions depend on soil moisture. If it stays dry, farmers will delay and change to soybeans or sorghum. If it is moist, they will plant corn,” he said.

In Colorado, corn also rules, according to Ron Meyer, a Colorado State University extension agronomist. Irrigated and dryland corn will dominate spring planting. Colorado is also diversifying its crops with millet, sorghum and sunflowers.

Planting decisions will be influenced heavily by weather. “For us, it’s always the weather,” Meyer said. “With 17 inches of rain a year, it has to be evenly distributed.”

The warm weather also is pushing up Kansas wheat crop ahead of schedule, said Douglas Jardine, Extension Plant Pathologist at Kansas State University.  A cold snap “could affect hundreds of thousands of acres,” Jardine said.

Spring Planting 2016: Great Plains

States: Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma

Top Contender: Corn

Dark Horse: Sorghum

Factors to Watch: Turbulent and unseasonably warm weather