Story & Photos by Robyn Scherer, M.Agr.

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March 10, 2013
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Spring moisture needed for drought recovery

April showers bring May flowers, or so they say. Spring showers also bring one very important element to the state of Nebraska, and that is much needed moisture.

Spring time is a time of year that the ground can absorb moisture without a high risk of evaporation. In years following a drought, this moisture is more important than ever to the path of drought recovery.

In general, the months of November through February are not great moisture months. “The months of December through February statistically don’t make much difference. Only seven percent of our precipitation falls during that time,” said Allen Dutcher, state climatologist for Nebraska.

He continued, “February is statistically a dry month. We have had tolerable amounts for the month of February, but really no change on the drought.”

The biggest time for moisture accumulation in the state is in March and April, and October and November. In between that time in the winter, the ground is frozen and the moisture evaporates, and in the summer the heat causes the moisture to evaporate as well.

The time frame for moisture is small, and the spring moisture, before dormancy breaks, is crucial for soil recharge. “If it doesn’t rain, it will be worse. We are in worse shape right now than we were this time last year. We need one storm system a week through the spring to recharge the soil for dryland crops. We cannot afford to go any stretch moving forward without precipitation,” said Dutcher.

There is no deep subsoil moisture now, and the soil moisture is only located at the surface. “There is nothing for the roots to go down and dip into. Everything is at the surface right now,” he said.

This lack of deep sub-soil moisture makes it hard for even irrigated farmers to keep up with the demand of the crop. “The irrigated guys will have to apply that much more water to keep up. Last year they ran the pivots for three months straight. Can we afford to do that? Some of them can’t even keep up even if they were running full time,” he said.

He added, “We will see a significant yield reduction if that is the case.”

The likelihood that the deficit in the soil will be eliminated by the end of the spring is very slim. “The probability for completely eliminating the deficits occurred is less than 20 percent by the end of April, and 30 percent by the end of August. That deficit won’t be made up that easily,” he said.

However, he does see moisture in the near future. “We are going to get moisture. There was deep snowpack in Canada this year, and that cold air will help surface temperatures down, and keep the dormancy break in check. The longer we can keep them in check, the more time the soil has to get moisture. That boundary between cold air and warm air, that is what sets up thunderstorms. We need to get moisture,” Dutcher said.

Many dryland locations have seen deficits of 3- to 4-inches below normal thus far. Without moisture, the ability of dryland crops to grow will be very limited.

“Our July/August yields will fall apart. We cannot even go 30 days. During max water usage, we only have enough moisture in the soil right now for three to eight days of maximum water usage,” Dutcher explained.

He added, “We don’t have enough moisture to produce a corn crop in a dryland situation right now. We would need 130 percent of normal precipitation to be able to have a dryland corn crop for this year. They generally need 24-inches total, and we have had 6-inches since last fall. We need 18-inches of moisture in the next five months, and we usually only get 12-13-inches.”

One of the biggest issues that Dutcher is concerned with is pastureland in the state. “We are basically out of pasture, and are feeding supplemental feed. The corn stalks that were baled are running out. We sold a lot of our extra supplies when the drought started three years ago, and now we are short. We are having to pull hay from the Dakotas and Canada,” he said.

He continued, “Our pastures fell apart in early summer. If we don’t see the Sandhills get significant moisture so we can get production, we will see a larger reduction in the cattle herd. There was a 30 percent reduction this fall, if we don’t see moisture we will see another thirty percent cull this spring.”

The next biggest issue that he sees is with wheat. “Wheat will break dormancy soon. Some of it didn’t even come up last year, and we don’t know if it’s viable. It if breaks dormancy now, it is vulnerable to freeze damage if it even comes up,” he said.

Cool season grasses and trees occurred major stress last year, and those affects are showing up this spring. “It really stressed cool season grasses, and that can affect its ability to hold onto the soil. The trees are affected and are dying. That will get worse, and then you get a fire danger,” Dutcher stated.

He added, “The drought impacts will be magnified if we get the same scenario this year that we had last year. We need big storms to get a break in the near time. Regardless of how the season goes, the hydrological drought, or water storage, will stay with us through this year.”

The snowpack in the Rocky mountains is one way that they gauge the possibility for drought. “We have had poor snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, and the western half of the state is tied to that. We must see 80 percent of average snowpack by May 1, or we have historically seen a drought. If the snow disappears too early, we don’t get the thunderstorms. The earlier the snowpack disappears, the longer between when it disappears and when the monsoon kicks in,” he explained.

He continued, “We want it to last until the end of June. We can go a max of 28-30 days without moisture. The monsoon season generally starts around mid-July in New Mexico, and by August it gets to us.”

The future of the drought hinges entirely on the amount of moisture that the state receives in the next two months.

“There are signs by the Climate Prediction Center that March will be below normal temperatures western half. We want it to be lower than normal. They have also backed off on precipitation. If the next storm drops the moisture we think it will, we will be at average. If it continues, we can get a little bit of a break. May and June is where we get more moisture, but April also needs to be wet. It’s not impossible, but certainly with the drought signature that we have you have to play it by the statistical odds, which points to drought. What happens in the next two months will affect that,” said Dutcher.

He added, “If we have perfectly timed rainfall events we could get by, for now. It’s very difficult to undo the damage.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Mar 10, 2013 12:00AM Published Mar 19, 2013 07:12AM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.