A widespread and expanding drought is setting back the growth of forages and other crops in a large part of the southern Great Plains.
Texas has been especially hard hit by the long stretch of dry weather. Ninety-eight percent of the state is experiencing drought with 60% in extreme or exceptional drought, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor.
Some areas benefited from a 1.5” rain earlier this month. Yet severe to extreme drought conditions continue “hammering the growth of small grains and pasture and rangeland grasses” throughout much of the state, the April 5 Texas AgriLife Extension crops and weather report stated. “We still need rain,” says Lyle Zoeller, Texas Agri-Life Extension agent in Coryell County. “Bermudagrass has been slow coming out this spring. The pastures and hayfields have finally greened up. But after they broke dormancy, they’ve just been sitting there. Everything is pretty short. Even the weeds aren’t growing.”
Zoeller also notes that many livestock producers in the area continue to feed hay. “Typically, we’re done with that by around March 1,” he says.
Many cattle producers in his area are culling herds and selling calves they would normally sell much later in the year, says Armon Hewitt, Zoeller’s counterpart in Trinity County, TX. “Some are still feeding hay, and many are still feeding cubes. Water levels in ponds and lakes continue to drop, with some drying up completely.”
The situation is equally dire in many parts of Oklahoma. The USDA Market News weekly hay report for April 8 notes that over 92% of the state is in a moderate-to-severe drought. By some accounts, the state has been drier in the past four months than at any time since 1921. That includes the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.
“We’re in terrible shape,” says Brandon Drinnon, a hay grower and dealer from Taloga (northwestern Oklahoma). “We’ve had 1” of rain since November, and we only got a little bit of snow this winter.”
Drinnon’s alfalfa crop is lagging behind normal in growth. “In the good places, it’s about 8-12” tall, and the stands are thinner than normal. In the sorriest places, the alfalfa is only about 3-4” tall.”
This spring’s hot, dry weather has also led to a heavier-than-normal insect outbreak. Drinnon has already sprayed his crop for alfalfa weevils three times and will likely need to apply a fourth treatment.
The situation has already put upward pressure on local hay prices, he says. A year ago, at the start of the cropping season, dairy-quality alfalfa hay was bringing $120/ton at the farm. This year, the contracted price for new-crop hay is in the $160-180/ton range. “We have no inventory left coming out of the winter, and it looks like it’s going to stay dry for awhile. The market is responding.”
It’s likely that the drought will persist or intensify in the areas currently affected until at least the end of June, according to the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC). Over the same timeframe, CPC says it’s also likely that drought could develop westward into Arizona and the Four Corners Region, northward into Kansas and Nebraska and eastward through the Gulf Coast states and up into the Carolinas and Maryland.
A key factor in the CPC forecast is that a waning La Niña will continue to influence the weather patterns in much of the continental U.S., says Brian Fuchs, climatologist for the U.S. Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Drier-than-normal conditions across the southern U.S. are expected. Typically, once a La Niña completely fades, the areas impacted by dry conditions will see a return to more normal precipitation patterns.
“How quickly the agricultural crops in those areas are able to recover once the precipitation returns will depend mostly on how much soil moisture is lost during the drought period and the severity of the impact to water resources,” says Fuchs.