Some farmers and ranchers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming are looking to the skies for signs of precipitation
May 18, 2018
With the bull's-eye of two hard-hit drought areas located in southwest Colorado and southwest Kansas, farmers and ranchers across the central and southern Plains and the Rockies are anxiously watching weather forecasts for much-needed rain.
There are possible sources for rain opportunities in these spring/summer months, including anticipated periodic areas of low pressure and the dryline boundary (of instability) on the Plains, and possible rains if the El Nino sets up this summer, and then — the monsoonal flow (of seasonal reversal) up into the southern Rockies, among other storm-inducing features. Meanwhile, until the next rainfall, here's the current drought impact.
For starters, extreme southwest Colorado including Durango are in exceptional drought, according to the Drought Monitor. Areas further north, including Grand Junction are in severe drought. Then further north into Steamboat Springs is classified as "abnormally dry."
"So far this year, Durango has received just 1.39 inches of precipitation. Normal for this date is 5.21 inches, said Scott Stearns, meteorologist intern at the National Weather Service, Grand Junction, Colo. "The lowest ever was 0.81 inches in 2002, so this year isn't the worst we've ever seen, but it's close." The Grand Junction NWS forecast area covers from the Continential Divide near Vail and Aspen, west into eastern Utah.
Grand Junction so far this year has received 2.91 inches of precipitation. Normal is 3.48 inches. The lowest ever received in Grand Junction was 0.77 inches. There's potentially good news for southwest Colorado. "Some signals we're seeing indicate the monsoonal moisture may come into our area a week or two earlier than normal, which is a good sign, although not a guarantee," Stearns said.
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"Western Colorado is favored to receive above normal precipitation, which is a change from last month's outlook for June-July-August," said Matthew Rosencrans, head of forecast operations, Climate Prediction Center, as he analyzed the latest 90-day outlook.
There's also some hope for summertime rainfall in southeast Colorado, which is strongly needed to bust the current drought.
"The drought is bad," said Service Hydrologist Tony Anderson at the National Weather Service in Pueblo, Colo. "If we go back to Oct. 1, snow accumulation has been at or near historic lows in the Arkansas River Basin and Rio Grand Basin. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, central and southeast Colorado have moderate to extreme drought conditions. The southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains are experiencing exceptional drought, which is the worst category."
Since Oct. 1, (when precipitation really dropped off, also called the "Water Year") Colorado Springs has received 2.63 inches of precipitation. Average for this time of year is 4.64 inches. Pueblo has received 1.89 inches, compared with the average 4.53 inches.
"The Climate Prediction Center indicates southeast Colorado is moving out of this drier pattern and closer to near-normal. A decent monsoon is indicated for the western Colorado/Utah area, but it's highly variable regarding who gets rain and where thunderstorms set up each day," Anderson said. "The CPC Drought Outlook indicates the drought may persist, but shows improvement mid-to late-summer."
A Colorado Task Force overseeing Conservation Reserve Program and fire declarations, met on May 16, noting that because Colorado is a state with federally managed land, some decisions about when to turn cattle out, when to come off the land, when to graze or not, are actually out of the hands of producers, and are related to the environment.
Executive Vice President Terry Fankhauser of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association told The Fence Post, some stocking rate reductions are taking place in southwestern Colorado.
"So, we have producers who are moving cattle to market early and are going ahead and selling because they're concerned, if the drought persists they'd have to sell early, and they want to do it before cattle prices could possibly slip," he said.
He also said that if the drought continues into the summer without much rain, the U.S. Forest Service would likely remove cattle from the federal lands to preserve adequate forage for wildlife.
"This would result in livestock producers finding alternative forage, which may not be available, or could be expensive to find and buy hay," Fankhauser said.
He was quick to note this decision isn't affecting the majority, and that many producers are optimistic and believe they'll be able to push through this. "This thinking is probably appropriate, because after de-stocking, then the cost of re-stocking, as we learned in the 2012 period, can be very costly. We have (cattle association) members from southeast Colorado who have not yet recovered from from de-stocking in 2002 and 2003 and then re-stocking," he said. Fankhauser said the cow price doubled following that drought.
"I believe that any de-stocking is a personal decision, and so, we work through issues and forecasting with producers so they'll have ideas to bounce off about how their business is structured. You also have to live through feeding your family," Fankhauser said. So, they only make recommendations, not decisions.
Some producers, and sale barns in southwest Colorado are having more cow runs than usual for this time of year.
"Remember, not all cattle can be raised at 8,000 feet so you can't take a Kansas cow and bring it to Colorado and expect each one to survive in the mountains," Fankhauser said. "A lot of these mountain ranches raise amongst themselves."
Producers have been adding in oats to supplement alfalfa, which they'll use for forage/silage to get some value. Fankhauser said there will be a market for hay, which doubled in price this past winter.
The southern half of Colorado is expected to make it through the summer with some irrigation water. "But that area looks like autumn right now; there's been very little snowpack," Fankhauser said. "The effect will be anyone down river, who counts on that snowpack."
"A short-term drought is not going to put someone out of business," Fankhauser said. "In a longer term drought, there's stress on families, and if someone is emotionally struggling, we have a Crisis Hotline."
As Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown recommends on the following website, "The agricultural economic crisis is real. The resulting stress is real. Let's talk about it." Call the hotline at (844) 493-TALK or text TALK to 38255 or go to https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/agmain/ag-financial-crisis.
"We think of ranchers as tough men and women, and they are but they're human too," Fankhauser said. "We hope this will be a short-term drought."
"The drought has hit extremely hard here," said southwest Kansas dryland farmers Marieta and Tom Hauser, who farm milo and wheat, and also planted some dryland corn last year for the first time on their farm in Ulysses, Kan. "We had some decent moisture last year, and now we're right back in it,"
They'll plant more this year, and are hopeful.
"We hope and pray we get enough rain to bring it up," said Marieta Hauser, also the director of the Grant County, Kansas Chamber of Commerce, and on the Kansas Farm Bureau board of directors. "Also, the wheat is short this year and thin, but with a little moisture we could have a somewhat decent crop,"
The couple got almost three-fourths of an inch of rain (0.70) a couple of weeks ago, which was the first measurable moisture since October. "People here talk about the Grant County split; storms will rain north and south of us," she said. "You watch it come, then it doesn't materialize."
As the chamber director, Hauser is also concerned that a drought hurts their retail businesses when people don't have money to spend downtown.
"We also battled the fires and some of our CRP grass caught on fire when a train passing produced a spark, catching dry weeds alongside the track."
Wildfires burned 30 minutes south and west of Ulysses.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer, MD, issued an executive order March 13, 2018, declaring drought in all 105 Kansas counties due to below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures. Twenty-eight counties are classified in emergency status from central Kansas into southern Kansas and southwest Kansas. Twenty-nine counties in central, western Kansas and the east/central parts of the state are in a warning status, and 48 Kansas counties are in a watch status which includes the rest of the state: north/central, northwest, eastern and southeast Kansas.
The complete national map shows the 2018 Secretarial Drought Declarations with extreme drought conditions from central and southern Kansas into all of Oklahoma, south into northwest Texas, then west into southeast and southwest Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
SOUTHWEST KANSAS LIVESTOCK
Right in the heart of southwest Kansas' hardest hit drought area, David Clawson of Englewood, Kan., the 2017 president of the Kansas Livestock Association said the drought has gotten worse.
"We're still supplementing on grass," said Clawson, who has a cow/calf operation. "Livestock still come to our pickups for protein supplements, which tells you the grass doesn't have enough to feed. It's greening up, but we haven't had enough moisture for growth, My neighbors are all in the same boat. We're anxiously waiting to see if we get enough moisture to recover."
Over the past 60 days, Clawson has been selling cows. "We're de-stocking to just hold onto the best cows we can," he said. "We also went through this in 2011 and 2012 so experience makes it a little easier to deal with. It's just part of a planned program to give the grass a chance to recover."
Just to their south, in Oklahoma, Clawson's neighbors are in the drought area and have had to fight wildfires. "It's just trying to green-up there," he said. "We need a few inches of rain spread out over a couple of weeks. We got one of the best showers last night (May 15, with rainfall between 0.40 to 0.80 of an inch) and that's encouraging, but we need much more."
There are some areas that are now abnormally dry or beginning drought particularly in southern Nebraska, from Omaha westward to the area just east of McCook and then southward. However, an extension agent has some uplifting news.
"We are on the dry side. But one positive aspect, we had enough moisture for planting, and we got good stands," said Randy Pryor, Nebraska Extension educator/resident in Saline County. "That is, unless you till the ground. We have people who till the ground but had to run pivots this season. However, on the other side of the coin, farmers were able to plant areas that routinely you just cannot plant because they're usually too muddy,"
Also, in Jefferson and Saline Counties, there wasn't the "flush of growth" in May that they typically get in cool-season pastures. "We were behind in April because of temperature, and then a growth in May in pastures," Pryor said. "But, there's going to have to be timely rains if we're going to have a decent corn crop. We don't have a full soil profile of moisture like we are used to in southeast Nebraska. Parts of Jefferson, Gage and Pawnee counties had some good rains, but you still have the 'have nots.'"
Normally, those Nebraska counties expect an average of 4 1/2 inches of rain in May, which is the highest precipitation month on average in southeast Nebraska. However, official recordings in Saline County, for example in Crete official recorders received 0.41 of an inch, Friend 0.17, and the town of Western 0.93.
Pryor said in southeast Nebraska, they’re used to starting with a full profile of moisture on their silty, clay loam soils, which can mean 8-inches of water 4-feet deep, half of which is readily available for the crop. "Then, in dryland farming, you can figure on 6-feet deep, which would be 6-inches crop available water. We’re more used to that, which gives you resiliency in those times when you don’t have rains in the summer and gets you through a summer dry spell, but this is different when we’re starting out this way. For soybeans, our main concern comes in August to receive timely rainfall."
Meanwhile, Pryor said Nebraska hay prices have escalated and are almost double, and there's a drought to the south. "A local producer recently had a third cutting that went for $150 (for a big round) bale."
Many pastures in these dry areas of southern Nebraska are heavily dependent on cool-season grasses, primarily bluegrass and brome grass.
"The challenge we're starting to face pretty critically is that unless these grasses get some good growing moisture before Memorial Day, we're likely to be short of pasture for the rest of the year. Once we get into June, July and especially August, the heat prevents them from growing very well, even when they have a lot of moisture," said Bruce Anderson, Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extensive forage specialist.
The director of the Wyoming Cattlemen's Association said that Wyoming is not in a drought. "We're in pretty good shape," said William Doenz.
There are, however, abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions reported over southwest Wyoming, and the next one to two weeks are forecast to be warmer than average. But there's hope on the horizon.
"During these next couple of weeks, there are slightly wetter than average conditions expected, with an active weather pattern of periodic showers," said Senior Meteorologist Mike Jamski at the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Keeping a positive outlook can be challenging, but several folks believe it's a choice.
"The life we've decided to live in — agriculture," Clawson said, "We've just gotta have faith."
"The weather cycles, you go through dry periods, and then there's rain," Hauser said. "So we keep at it."
— Hadachek is 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.