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Drought Takes Head Start Into 2013

Lance Cheung

2012 was a drought year for the record books. It was the warmest year ever recorded in Des Moines, Iowa, Topeka, Kan., and Columbia, Mo. and the driest ever in Grand Island, Neb. The question is whether 2013 will be any different.

With a crop in the ground, winter wheat farmers need things to change in a hurry. But climatologists aren’t so sure that will happen.

“Unfortunately (the drought is) not over and we’re definitely starting 2013 in a different status than what we entered 2012,” said Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center based at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.

2012 started with about 28 percent of the mainland U.S. in drought. At that time the worst of it was in Texas and the southern plains. 2013 starts with 62 percent of the lower U.S. in drought and the heart of it is centered on the great plains from the Dakotas down through the Texas panhandle, prime winter wheat country.

Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the drought center, says farmers could be in dire straits.

“This year, when we’re already behind the eight-ball when you look at the moisture situation, we’ll be living rain to rain much earlier unless we get a huge spring,” Svoboda said.

Farmers who raise winter wheat are already living rain to rain, or snow to snow. Winter wheat is normally planted around September and harvested in June. This time of year there should be a field of low, green grass as the young wheat goes through its winter dormancy.  But the warm and dry fall caused a bit of a false start for the crop.

Dan Hughes, who grows wheat in Chase and Perkins counties near the Colorado border in southwestern Nebraska, planted as deep into the dry soil as he could hoping the wheat could find moisture.

“We put our drills in and planted it about an inch, inch and a half (deep) and prayed for rain,” Hughes said. “And you know it’s not looking the best, but at least you can see that it’s going down the rows.”

Greg Kruger, a cropping systems specialist at the University of Nebraska’s West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, said in some places the wheat seed never even sprouted in the parched soil.

“In our dryland farm it was zero germination,” Kruger said. “Certainly standing at field edge you’re not going to see anything.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 49 percent of Nebraska’s winter wheat crop is in poor or very poor condition. Seventy percent is poor or very poor in South Dakota. That number is 31 percent in Kansas, the nation’s top winter wheat state.

“For those fortunate to get the crop up, there’s potential if we get some rain or snowfall it could recover,” Kruger said. “But I think for a lot of that wheat crop that USDA keeps reporting as poor or very poor, the long term outlook on those fields is going to be pretty bleak.”

Many communities are 10 inches or more behind their normal precipitation for the year. Nebraska State Climatologist, Al Dutcher, said catching up on the drought would require setting more records – for snow.

“Our record snowfall is just over 100 inches in a winter,” Dutcher said. “And these deficits are so extensive that if we wanted to completely eliminate (the drought) with snowfall we’d be looking in the area of 125 to 150 inches of snowfall with normal snow equivalency rates. I don’t think anybody wants to see that type of a winter.”

In fact, there are no predictions for 10 feet of snow over the next several weeks. By the spring, there is a chance for improvement, but there are also some troubling signs and not just for wheat farmers.

First, snowpack in the Rockies is normal, at best [.pdf]. “Normal” might sound good, but Michael Hayes at the Drought Mitigation Center said that’s not enough to refill diminished rivers and reservoirs. Without more snow, water disputes along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers could continue.

“There are going to be a lot of pressures put on politicians and the managers of those river systems to fairly allocate how that water gets distributed,” Hayes said.

And climatologist Mark Svoboda said another reason for concern is dry weather settling back into parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast - areas that feed moisture into the Midwest.

“The moisture down there is our source region for our precipitation and our temperatures for the late spring and summer period,” Svoboda said. “So if they stay dry and hot, that sort of migrated up north last year. That could repeat this year. That’s not a good sign.”

For now, the wheat markets are withholding judgment. Strong global supplies are keeping prices in check.

Dan Hughes, the Nebraska wheat farmer, said if things go from bad to worse he can lean on his crop insurance. But he still feels optimistic about his fortunes in the new year.

“You know, it’s like I tell my banker,” Huges said. “A good rain’s coming, so sooner or later it will be here.”


Grant Gerlock is Harvest Public Media's reporter based at NET News in Lincoln, Neb.

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