Spring moisture positive step towards drought recovery | TheFencePost.com

Spring moisture positive step towards drought recovery

Story & Photos by Robyn Scherer, M.Agr.
Kiowa, Colo.
Drought conditions have improved greatly over the past several weeks, breathing optimism into farmers and ranchers.

Snowfall is generally reserved for winter time, at least in many states. However, in states such as Colorado, that is not always the case. Recent snowfall across the state has dramatically changed the landscape, as well as the prospect for the upcoming crop season.

Instead of fields of brown, most of the state is covered in a blanket of white. This latest snowstorm, and those throughout the month of April, is a positive step towards drought recovery.

Last week, many parts of Colorado received significant moisture in the form of snow, which will melt over a period of several days, allowing the ground to soak up the much-needed moisture.

This moisture is needed to replenish the subsoil. Nationally, subsoil moisture continues to remain short. The U.S. Agriculture Department, in its weekly report published on April 15, said that even with the rain and snow, topsoil moisture was rated 53 percent very short or short. Subsoil moisture was rated 93 percent short or very short.

Colorado snowpack improved significantly the last week. As of April 18, the statewide snowpack was reported at 85 percent of normal. The South Platte River, which supplies Weld County, the largest ag producer in the state, was reported at 88 percent.

This moisture fell over many of the High Plains states including North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming. The drought monitor is released every Thursday, and has five categories of drought: the lowest level is abnormally dry, followed by moderate, severe, extreme, and then exceptional levels.

“Beneficial precipitation continues to improve the drought conditions in the High Plains Region. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, last week’s precipitation totals that fell after the cutoff and from this week’s storms have all been accounted for in showing the improvements to the drought situation in the Region,” said Joseph Brum in his April 18 report, High Plains Regional Climate Center.

He continued, “The area of moderate drought (D1) or worse improved by more than 5 percent, to now total 86.43 percent of the Region. The areas of severe drought (D2) and extreme drought (D3) also improved by more than 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively. The worst condition, exceptional drought (D4), decreased in area by 5 percent to now only total 6.77 percent of the Region; also, over the past three months the area of D4 has decreased by 20 percent.”

Wyoming saw a large decrease in the severity of their drought last week. The snowfall that fell in Colorado and Wyoming the week of April 15-21 will not be reported until the April 22 Crop Progress Report.

“States in the Region that showed major improvements this week are South Dakota and Wyoming. Both states have had all areas that were D4 upgraded to D3 this week, this also marks the first time since the end of August that South Dakota and Wyoming have been free of D4 area. Furthermore, a majority of D3 areas from last week have been upgraded to D2 this week. Likewise, the areas of D3 have not been this low for both states since the end of August,” said Brum.

States surrounding Colorado and Wyoming have seen significant last week. “Nebraska once having nearly 78 percent of its area in D4 type conditions had improvements again this week, now only 8.29 percent of the state is in such a situation. Colorado and Kansas had minimal improvements this week versus last and North Dakota has only 25 percent of its area in a drought condition,” he stated.

Last week, for the week ending April 11, was when the moisture first began to fall and the biggest improvements were made. “According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, there were some major improvements to the Region in the higher intensity drought conditions. The area of exceptional drought (D4) was reduced by nearly half week, to total only 11.7 percent of the Region. Most of this improvement was in Nebraska, where there was a 60 percent reduction in the area of D4, to total only 15.23 percent of the state. Nebraska has not had the area of D4 this low since August 7th of last year,” Brum explained.

Colorado also saw improvements. “Colorado, Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota all saw the area of D4 reduce as well. The Region as a whole still has 91.67 percent of its area in a moderate drought (D1) condition or worse. Areas of severe drought (D2) and extreme drought (D3) had reductions in area as well this week, with totals of 80.57 percent and 53.33 percent respectively.

This moisture has helped the wheat crop to improve, but not significantly. “Six percent of the winter wheat crop was reported being pastured this week, slightly above the five-year average of 4 percent. Windy conditions caused some damage to wheat plantings, with crop condition rating mostly fair to very poor,” the crop progress reported.

Any moisture that the state receives is positive, but does not come without consequences. Many farmers were limited in their field work last week, as heavy snow storms and high wind kept them out of the field.

This limited time in the field has put some farmers behind on their planting schedule. “ Onion growers continue to make planting progress, with 48 percent of the crop planted by week’s end, slightly behind the five year average of 52 percent. Producers made limited progress in planting sugarbeets and summer potatoes. Sugarbeet plantings were at 4 percent by week’s end, considerably behind the 17 percent average. Summer potato plantings are behind the five year average of 14 percent, with 11 percent planted by week’s end,” the report stated.

Last year, farmers were able to get into the fields early, and get their crops in the ground earlier. However, come June, rainfall had seized, and by August, nearly 60 percent of the cropland was in some level of drought.

Farmers are now wanting to be in the fields prepping for corn planting, including plowing and application of fertilizer. This planting usually occurs starting in May, and continues through the month.

USDA estimates show that farmers plan to plant 174.4 million acres in corn and soybeans this year, which is a record amount. Much of that will be planted in the corn belt, and the recent moisture will allow those plants to emerge.

However, the lack of deep subsoil moisture is what could plague farmers. Crops like corn tap into that deep moisture when the rain stops, and without that availability, those crops, especially dryland crops, will struggle.

Pastures did seem some improvement as well. “Recent moisture in some areas has provided short term relief to rangeland across the state. Current conditions were rated 47 percent very poor compared to 56 percent last week,” the crop report stated.

Calving and lambing remained on pace. “Calving and lambing rates continue near the average, with 78 percent of cows having calved since January 1st, while 68 percent of the ewes lambed. Death losses for cattle and sheep were average. Stored feed supplies were rated short for this time of year,” said the crop progress report. ❖


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