After struggling through 2012, the driest growing season he can remember, hay grower Andy Stock was hoping fall rains and winter snows would replenish soil-moisture levels before the coming growing season. As of mid-February, it hadn’t happened near his Murdock, NE, area.

“Since November, we’ve had maybe 1” of rain and 6-8” of snow in our area,” says Stock, who grows alfalfa on 300-400 acres and grass hay on 50-100 acres. “We’re fortunate compared to a lot of other places that aren’t very far from us. But we’ve still got a long way to go to get that soil profile up to where we’d like to see it.”

He’s spent much of the winter making growing-season contingency plans.

“Some of the older fields we’ve been stretching along for hay production are going to have to be tilled this spring and rotated into another crop,” he says. “They’re not going to survive next summer with conditions this dry.

“Some of our other fields are newer and healthier, and they should be okay as long as we get timely rains. We’re also going to try to get some production off of new seedings that we’ll do this spring. Our plan was to do it last fall, but we just didn’t have any moisture.”

Stock’s situation is hardly unique among hay and forage producers in a large chunk of the country’s midsection.

As of early February, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed 58% of the continental U.S. was experiencing drought at some level, only a slight improvement from the 65% undergoing it last September. The central Great Plains states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma were in the most severe drought condition. Neighboring regions were also showing increased degrees of drought.

The lack of fall and winter precipitation isn’t unusual, says USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey. “Winter is typically dry in much of the middle one-third of the U.S.,” he says. “So it’s highly unlikely that subsoil moisture will be replenished by spring across the Great Plains and Upper Midwest.”

But rainfall “has had trouble” working its way across the southern Appalachians most of the winter, Rippey notes. “Portions of the lower Southeast – including Florida – remain at risk for drought expansion and/or intensification heading into spring,” he says.

The Great Basin and Southwest also trended dry until late January, when several warm, wet systems moved through. While those systems boosted topsoil moisture in some areas, they did little to improve high-elevation snowpacks or subsoil moisture levels.

“Those regions would need a series of late-winter snows to see significant improvement in the drought situation by spring,” says Rippey.

The eastern Corn Belt has been a bright spot in the overall drought picture this winter. Parts of Indiana, Illinois and Missouri saw drought subside as the winter progressed, due mostly to beneficial rains associated with Hurricane Isaac and several snowfalls.

There’s reason to be concerned in those areas, as well. “Don’t count on a full recovery of soil moisture soon,” says University of Missouri soil scientist Randy Miles. “Even if parts of the Midwest receive a lot of snowfall and rain, that moisture will take time to move deep into the soil where the driest conditions exist.”

When he checked soil-moisture depth around Missouri earlier this year, Miles found that spots in its eastern part were wet to 12-16”.

Below that level, though, the ground was still dry. Moisture near the surface can evaporate with just a few days of high winds, higher-than-normal temperatures or low humidity, he adds. That can prevent moisture from having a chance to move deep into the soil where it’s needed.

“We really count on getting moisture stored in the subsoil so that, as we get into the summer and have more evapotranspiration going on, we can use what’s been stored as a kind of savings account. At this point, we have enough to get us started in the surface soil, but we really don’t have anything in reserve to carry us forward.”

Drought in the eastern Corn Belt could easily redevelop during the growing season, warns Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center and a U.S. Drought Monitor author.

“With soil-moisture levels so depleted at the end of last summer, it wouldn’t take much – maybe a week or two of extremely hot, dry weather – to put those areas right back into drought,” he says. “Bottom line, it will be challenging going into the 2013 growing season to get sufficient amounts of forages produced in many areas unless conditions really change.”

Prospects for that happening are iffy at best, according to Rippey. As of mid-February, he notes, most longer-term forecasts were calling for little change in U.S. weather patterns through the spring and early summer. If those forecasts are on target, he says to expect:

• Wet weather from the Midsouth into the lower Midwest, eastward to the western slopes of the Appalachians.

• Warm, relatively dry conditions across the nation’s southern region, particularly in the Southwest, the southern half of the Great Plains and the lower Southeast.

• Cold, relatively stormy weather across the northern U.S., particularly across the Northern Plains and the Northwest.

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