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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — In July 2002, a drought settled over Missouri that lasted 99 weeks and finally ended in May 2004.

Eight years later during late August, Missouri suffered the most intense drought in its history. The dry spell affected 35.72% of land in the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Then again in 2018, an extreme drought took hold of Missouri in the spring. Less than half an inch of rain fell on Boone County during the month of April, hay was scarce and farmers had to cull their herds.

Prolonged droughts like these can be devastating to crops, livestock, the level of water in streams and ponds and the overall health of the state economy.

Now, researchers in the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri are using drought simulators known as rainout shelters to address the potential decline in plant production and growth.

“Drought is a very important factor in plant growth and productivity,” Felix Fritschi, a professor of bioenergy crop physiology and genetics at MU, told the Columbia Missourian. “It’s one of the most important abiotic stresses that occurs here in Missouri.”

Fritschi is one of the lead researchers on the project, which uses the rainout shelters to control water availability on small fields.

The shelter is essentially a 50×100-foot greenhouse on wheels with clear polycarbonate covers, bifold doors and a gauge that senses rainfall.

When rainfall is indicated, the gauge triggers the simulator to move and cover a specific area within the crop. The shelter creates a man-made drought to see how plants react to stress in such an environment.

“We are not worried about plant survival,” Fritschi said “We are worried about productivity.”

Fritschi said rainout shelter research has focused specifically on soybeans and corn in the field, since they are two of the most significant crops in Missouri.

During an average summer, seasonal precipitation keeps the soil wet enough for the corn to grow and thrive. In a drought, a condition known as “rootless corn syndrome” may occur where the plants do not develop a nodal or “anchor” root system.

Sometimes known as “floppy corn syndrome,” the condition threatens the viability of the plants, often causing them to collapse in a wind and break.

“These plants may appear normal but begin to lodge when plants are about 15 inches tall because they are weakly anchored,” said William Wiebold, director of the MU Variety Testing Program and the Missouri Soybean Center.

That eventually leads to harvest losses.

Although there is hope farmers will be able to plant drought-tolerant crops one day, Fritschi said he doesn’t know quite when that will happen.

“People around the world are also studying this topic,” he said. “And it will take a lot of people to figure out how to make plants grow with less water.”