California livestock, like these east of Fresno, will likely find that the greenest forage in this drought area is hay that had to be brought in. Producers there who rely on rain-fed rangelands and grasslands for forage supplies probably won’t get enough precipitation through the rest of the winter, according to the latest predictions
Northern Plains and Upper Midwestern hay growers can expect a long, cold spring, while those in much of the Southern U.S., Northeast and Pacific Northwest can anticipate warmer, dry weather. The Far West looks to stay in drought’s devastating grip.
So predicts Brad Rippey, ag meteorologist for USDA.
Spring may be a little slow in coming this year in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains – with cold temperatures much like last year’s, Rippey says. “The indications are that the cold weather, which has been so persistent in that part of the country this winter, may hold on throughout the spring and even into the early summer.”
Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist, is less sure. He points out that last year’s early season weather was nearly identical to that of 1947.
“In both years, we had a late spring, with record snows in May in some places, followed by a lot of rain and then turning dry in July.” That kind of weather pattern is rare – “something we’ve seen only twice over a span of more than 60 years,” he says.
The two do agree that forecasting the weather several months out is especially challenging this year. The key factor, Rippey says, is that the interplay of La Niña and El Niño cycles, which dominated weather modeling the last two decades or so, has been absent so far this winter.
“Without a La Niña or El Niño to hang a hat on, we have pretty limited guidance looking ahead. It’s like working with blinders on.”
As of early February, there were several signals that a La Niña might be taking shape, says Taylor. Those signals included a cooling trend for waters of the Pacific near the equator and a series of strong high- and low-pressure ridges ranging from just off the east coast of Australia to the west coast of South America.
If a La Niña were to develop, it would likely negatively impact hay production in many parts of the country, he says. “La Niñas produce more in the way of weather extremes. For hay growers, one cutting might be great, but the next two could be failures or vice versa. There’s more volatility.”
They tend to put high and low pressures in the opposite order of what we’ve become used to, he adds. “So in the Corn Belt, where June and July are traditionally the wettest months, you could end up going into a drought.”