Drought tightens grip on U.S. as El Nino chance increases

There's no way to recover some of the drought damage already done.

Over the last week, hot temperatures and a lack of precipitation helped drought tighten its grip on the U.S. While some improvement in the Southwest and Texas were reported, drought conditions worsened in the Midwest, Northeast and Northwest, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) reported. Drought is now covering 30.97% of the lower 48 states and affecting 70 million people.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, widespread rain fell over parts of Pennsylvania and New York, as well as Illinois and from southwest Nebraska to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, but across the central and eastern U.S., rainfall -- some moderate to heavy -- was generally hit or miss. In the western U.S., monsoonal rains fell over Arizona and New Mexico and parts of southern Utah and Nevada, keeping temperatures in the areas that received rain near or cooler than normal. Most other areas -- with the exceptions of eastern Wyoming, the Montana high plains and parts of Colorado -- stayed mostly dry, the report noted.

Martha Shulski, state climatologist for Nebraska and associate professor of applied climatology in the School of Natural Resources at University Nebraska-Lincoln, said this year has been fourth warmest globally since 1880.

In general, for the entire North Central region, it was a late start for farmers this year due to wet/cold conditions in April, she said. However, planting progression occurred rapidly once it warmed up, with most of the region now 20-30% ahead of the typical crop growing schedule, she added.

“It’s like a switch was flipped in May. We went from blizzards and cold and winter right into summer. We had some significant warmth starting in May that led to very rapid crop growth and actually put progress ahead of schedule by around a few weeks,” Shulski explained.

Nonetheless, precipitation has been spotty and localized, she added.

Michigan, in particular, has become an area to watch if above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation continue, Shulski said. She noted that the lakes currently have above-average water levels, but there has been a relatively quick deterioration of land dryness. Crops that are experiencing stress were planted late or have shallow root systems, she said.

Further, Shulski reported that only about half of soybeans in both Michigan and Kansas are rated in good/excellent condition, while less than or just over 50% of the soybean crops in Arkansas, Michigan, Kansas and Louisiana are rated in good/excellent condition.

As of July 17, the National Drought Mitigation Center’s "United States Agricultural Commodities in Drought" website showed that 20% of alfalfa hay acreage, 25% of the U.S. cattle inventory, 24% of hay acreage, 19% of the U.S. milk cow inventory and 6% of the U.S. hog inventory are being affected by the drought.

As the drought continues to worsen, the Missouri Cattlemen's Assn. is in the process of pulling together agencies and organizations to streamline efforts to help. On July 18, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed an executive order activating the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Drought Assessment Committee and placing 47 counties on drought alert. Parson has been vocal about the impact this drought has had on the cattle industry.

"Missouri farmers are resilient, but with no control over Mother Nature, this year's drought has been difficult to battle," he said.

As part of phase 1 of Missouri's drought plan, the Department of Natural Resources' Climate & Weather Committee has been monitoring and logging drought conditions since early January.

"The drought in Missouri is becoming serious for cattle producers statewide. Phase 2 of Missouri's drought plan is essential to addressing worsening conditions. In order for producers to get the help they need, the actual condition of their land needs to be recognized," Missouri Cattlemen's Assn. president Greg Buckman said. "I applaud Gov. Parson and the Department of Natural Resources for making the situation known."

The association continues to call upon its members affected by drought conditions to submit reports to the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in order for local conditions to be accurately identified.

David Schemm, state executive director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency (FSA), also recently announced that 43 Kansas counties are now authorized for emergency haying and grazing use of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for the remainder of fiscal 2018, which ends Sept. 30.

Local FSA county committees in these counties designated as level D2 (severe drought) on the U.S. Drought Monitor have requested and were approved for emergency haying/grazing by the Kansas FSA State Committee beginning July 16. The emergency grazing period for these counties will end Sept. 30, 2018. The emergency haying period ends 30 calendar days from the authorization date, not to exceed Aug. 15, 2018.

“Kansas FSA is dedicated to helping our producers when they face challenging situations like the drought Kansas is currently experiencing. By authorizing the release of these CRP acres, we can give producers access to desperately needed forage and grazing,” Schemm said.

"Eligible producers who are interested in emergency haying and grazing of CRP must request approval through their local FSA before haying and grazing eligible acreage and obtain a modified conservation plan from the NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] that includes haying and grazing provisions. Current provisions allow grazing on up to 100% of a field based upon the forage management plan developed by NRCS and up to 75% stocking rate," Schemm added.

One climatologist noted that a number of the current drought issues across the nation will not be able to be eliminated even if precipitation comes.

“With the drought outlook, the damage has been done. There’s really almost no way we can recover some of the issues going on,” he said.

An outlook for the middle of July through the end of October suggests that drought will likely persist and may even possibly stretch farther into other areas, Shulski said.

Chance for El Niño increases

The watch for El Niño continues, with the latest update showing that the chance of El Niño occurring this winter has now increased to 70%. In fact, the chance that El Niño conditions will be in place across the tropical Pacific by the fall is about 65%, Emily Becker, contractor to the Climate Prediction Center, reported.

“We are seeing some warmth in the equatorial Pacific, especially kind of deeper in the ocean, which is likely to make its way to the surface and looking like [it will] result in an El Niño event,” Shulski noted, adding that the highest chances for occurrence are in late summer to early fall.

Still, she said it is a little too early to tell what the implications of El Niño could be.

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