Rain and snow have improved pasture and range conditions in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas
May 18, 2017
Pasture and ranch conditions, week ending May 14
State / Very poor (percent) / Poor / Fair / Good / Excellent
Colorado / 1 / 3 / 28 / 58 / 10
Kansas / — / 3 / 18 / 64 / 15
Nebraska / — / 3 / 29 / 59 / 9
Wyoming / 1 / 16 / 19 / 58 / 6
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Pasture and rangeland conditions are reported to be favorable across much of Colorado and Wyoming, as well as in the central Plains of Nebraska and Kansas. Here's the latest from rangeland specialists and meteorologists in all four states:
For starters, rangeland conditions across the eastern part of Colorado are generally good, and the region is not experiencing drought conditions.
"Most areas have received beneficial spring moisture. There is a notable small area of drought involving 1.32 million acres in the Front Range, centered on Jefferson County. This will be a concern for small acreage folks in the metro area. Most of the affected rangeland is in Weld County," said Donald Schoderbek, regional specialist-range management for eastern Colorado at Colorado State University Extension.
“We’ve had good precipitation in the whole state in late April and now we’re running normal or above normal in precipitation.”
Meanwhile, recent natural disasters have had significant local effects. "The Logan-Phillips Fire affected approximately 32,000 acres of rangeland and cropland in northeastern Colorado. CSU-Extension has been assisting affected ranchers by providing technical assistance, deploying monitoring points and developing range management plans," Schoderbek said.
In southeastern Colorado, a late-season blizzard resulted in significant losses of livestock. A storm system April 28-30 brought heavy, wet snow to all of southeastern Colorado, with 1 to 2 feet of snow across the southeastern mountains, and a foot of snow in the southeastern plains; mainly along and south of the Arkansas River Valley.
"The far southeast part of the state took the brunt of the storm especially Baca County and Prowers County. One of the most important factors why the cattle got stuck in that blizzard, is they simply couldn't move in the heavy, wet, dense snow. It's kind of like trying to walk through wet cement. That was the big problem, it was a late April snow, that was so wet and thick and tough to move," explained Meteorologist Steve Hodanish at the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo.
"The drought pretty much is over with, in southeast Colorado, from the blizzard, an early April snowstorm, and all the other showers," Hodanish said.
In western Colorado, range and pasture conditions are generally ahead of schedule with some areas reporting being two weeks ahead of normal.
"Despite recent snow storms, a warmer than usual winter/spring contributed to range and pasture being ahead across most areas in the western part of the state. Some areas of western Colorado such as Delta, Montrose, and Mesa counties have experienced slightly below normal precipitation in the last six or so months — so production is expected to be slightly less, although this could change depending on rains, or lack thereof, in the next few weeks," said Retta Bruegger, regional specialist-range management for the western region, CSU Extension in Grand Junction, Colo.
"In contrast, higher elevations in the central mountains and San Juans received higher than usual snow this winter, and snow still persists above 10,000 feet. Despite a robust snowpack, the lower country (~6,000 feet) is snow free and expected to dry out if they don't receive continued spring and early summer precipitation. So, while the western part of the state is about average in terms of precipitation right now, warmer temperatures could dry things out if we don't continue to get moisture," Bruegger said.
Northern Colorado started out warm and dry last fall into the winter. At the National Weather Service in Boulder, which generally covers the area from the Continental Divide to the Palmer Divide to the Nebraska border, Meteorologist Kyle Fredin said, "We had the downslope drying in the foothills, in southwestern Weld County, and along the Interstate 25 corridor with periods of warm, dry and windy conditions in late fall."
Then, in mid December, the weather pattern changed for northern Colorado. "The main story was the strong northwesterly flow, which always does well for the northern mountains. After the arctic cold front swept through, it brought 5 to 10 feet of snow in Colorado's northern mountains," Fredin said.
Since Jan. 1, Greeley has received 15 inches of snowfall, but normally receives 37.4 inches. 'It's dry," Fredin said, "Although, they've had worse." Fort Collins received 28.5 inches of snow since Jan. 1. Their normal is 46.7
As spring arrived, precipitation became more evenly distributed, and recently in May — there was appreciable rains and even thunderstorms. "As we move into our wettest time in the front range; May, June, July and August — these months are typically when we get most of our rainfall, with May usually the wettest month of the year east of the Continental Divide," Fredin said.
After a dry start to 2017, spring precipitation has been abundant in most of Wyoming.
"We had quite a bit of moisture; some areas more, some less. In overall precipitation, we're a little above here in Cheyenne. Part of the northern Panhandle and northeast Wyoming had a mild to moderate drought, but that's improved a bit," observed Hydrometeorologist Mike Jamski at the National Weather Service in Cheyenne. "There are still some dry areas in southern Albany County, Wyoming, into Colorado. Late March into April and May saw slight improvement in northeast Wyoming, which is now abnormally dry, as opposed to a moderate drought," Jamski said. "To summarize, it was an abnormally dry start to the year, and we didn't see an improvement until late March into early May."
Regarding the latest pasture and rangeland conditions, many parts of Wyoming are several weeks into green up, especially the lower elevations. Experts say much of the state is in good shape, except the northeast corner which is reporting some below average moisture levels according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Drought Monitor (http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/).
"Spring precipitation has been pretty fair with more forecasted. Some of the higher elevations are further behind with some montane areas still under snow. Generally, we're on track, although the high country has snow pack that is above average in many places, so plant growth could be delayed there," said Derek Scasta, assistant professor and Extension rangeland specialist in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management at the University of Wyoming.
Although Cheyenne's snowfall is almost 19 inches below normal, Cheyenne is ahead in liquid precipitation. "Since Jan. 1, Cheyenne has received 5.26 inches of rain, which is two-thirds of an inch above normal for precipitation; however it's 18.9 inches below normal for snowfall," Jamski said.
The Cheyenne NWS office also records data for Scottsbluff, Neb., and Jamski noted western Nebraska is faring the same as Cheyenne, with 5.26 inches of rain since Jan. 1. That's 0.45 above normal. However, snowfall for Scottsbluff is 42.7 which is 0.7 above average, and more than Cheyenne's."
Most of Nebraska has seen an improvement in moisture so far in 2017, compared to last year. The drought monitor is indicating near normal conditions in most of Nebraska for early spring, with a few small areas of abnormally dry conditions; mainly in south central Nebraska and southwest Nebraska.
"Most pastures are in very good condition. Cool-season grasses in particular got an early start during the unusually warm March temperatures," said Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy, Extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln., noting moisture has been adequate or better in most areas, especially in the Sandhills.
"Also, with numerical weather computer models continuing to point toward active weather through mid-June, further reductions or complete elimination of residual dryness across the state is likely," said Allen Dutcher, associate state climatologist at the Nebraska State Climate Office in Lincoln. "However, a return to a dryer pattern during the heart of the growing season would increase the odds that hydrological drought conditions will expand. If the dryness pattern develops and two or more weeks of precipitation-free weather occurs from late June through August, expect a reintroduction of abnormally dry conditions or worse, which would be reflected in the short-term (agricultural) drought conditions by the U.S. Drought Monitor."
For now, Dutcher said recent moisture should be beneficial to rangeland and pasture ratings by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. The biggest concern for producers beginning to harvest forage materials for hay may be excessively wet conditions limiting the amount of time hay has to dry between precipitation events.
Statistically since January, Hastings, Neb., has had 5.82 inches. That's 1.63 inches below normal. Grand Island has 5.85 inches, which is 1.53 inches below normal, but is doing better than last year's 2.43 below normal.
A few small areas are a little dry or set back by April cold and snow, or had wildfire damage, but in summary, south central Nebraska and southwest are abnormally dry, but not in a drought, thanks to a big widespread rainfall that brought 2 to 3 inches in late April/early May," said Meteorologist Jeremy Wesely, National Weather Service in Hastings. "This got things green and looking good in Nebraska and northern Kansas."
There's good news for Kansas. The state is officially out of the drought.
Also, with 18 million acres of range and pasture land in Kansas, and of that, 15.5 million being native rangeland, the condition report is very favorable, not only for native rangeland but also for cool-season grasses such as Smooth Brome and Tall Fescue.
"These cool season grasses (what I call pastures,) were slow to start, but are taking off now. Some of it's being grazed and other is being hayed. Usually in late May to mid June — we typically think about putting them up for hay, and I think they're on track to meet that time frame," said Walter H. Fick, professor and Extension rangeland management specialist at Kansas State University in Manhattan. "We've had good precipitation in the whole state in late April and now we're running normal or above normal in precipitation," Fick said.
The grasses vary across Kansas. In the east, tallgrass prairies are dominated by Big bluestem, Little bluestem and Indiangrass. Central Kansas has mixed prairie. In western Kansas, there are short grasses called Buffalograss and Blue Grama.
"We also have a definite precipitation gradient with typically 40 inches of rain in the southeast corner … to under 15 inches in west central Kansas. Even the southwest area impacted by wildfires, the potential to recover is greater now. After wildfires, you can get a 50 percent reduction in grass production," Fick said. However, May to June is a critical judgment time for forage production. "If we don't have half our forage production by mid-June, then the probability of getting our normal average forage production would be reduced. Over 25 percent of cattle diets are non-grass, as they consume a number of broadleaf plants and some woody species."
The wildfires consumed record amounts of rangeland in Southwest Kansas in March as a dry winter followed a wetter than average summer in 2016. "Clark County, Kansas, was particularly hard hit with more than 80 percent of the acres burned. April brought wet weather but the pasture recovery was complicated by a late-season blizzard with a foot or more of snow," said Mary Knapp, assistant state climatologist, located at Kansas State University in Manhattan. "The heaviest snowfall total for the storm for southwest Kansas was 27 inches received at Syracuse.
For the first time since September 2016, the entire state of Kansas is drought-free.
"Since Jan. 1, Wichita (southern Kansas) received 17.71 inches of rainfall. The normal is 9.21, which means 8.50 inches above normal. Last year, we had 8.95 inches, so we have almost double the rainfall from what we had last year, and almost double what we normally have," said Kevin Darmofal, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Wichita. "Usually western Kansas gets about half the precipitation that the eastern half receives, and it's always good to see moisture, especially in the western half," he added.
Regarding eastern Kansas, after a dry start to 2017, most of the appreciable rains came after March 23, putting the area above normal in rainfall.
"Since January, Concordia has received 11.55 inches of rain. That's 3.98 inches above normal. Topeka is not quite as high at 11.83 inches, which is still 1.46 inches of rain above normal. Emporia, Kan., received 13.44 inches of rain since January; so they're 3.53 inches above normal," said Meteorologist Kris Craven at the National Weather Service in Topeka. "A lot of those rain totals happened since March 23, after the year started dry." So far, each of these four states has had a nice recovery this spring. ❖
— Hadachek is a freelance writer who lives on a farm with her husband in north central Kansas and is also a meteorologist and storm chaser. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org