As a new year begins to unfold, livestock and forage producers are wondering what the weather trend will be in the months ahead. Everyone, of course, is hoping the drought will subside.

Producers in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona just may see that happen, according to Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Fuchs reports that, according to the National Drought Monitor, 43% of the country was experiencing drought in December, down from 61% three months earlier.

“Much of the improvement in ground moisture has occurred in the Southeast, where summer monsoons helped make up the precipitation deficit,” he says. “That should allow for better spring growing conditions for haying and grazing.”

Fuchs attributes the moisture in the Southeast to the current El Niño weather pattern caused by the warming of tropical waters off the Pacific Coast. During an El Niño, temperatures are typically above normal in much of the country, with above-normal precipitation in the southern tier of states, says Fuchs.

Elwynn Taylor, an Iowa State University ag meteorologist, credits this El Niño, which began abruptly in late July, with saving the Corn Belt's soybean crop. It also prevented damage to the corn crop by keeping temperatures cooler in late summer.

“Another important El Niño benefit was that it slowed tropical storms and hurricanes from developing in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Taylor.

However, not all areas benefit from an El Niño, as it bodes below-normal precipitation for the Northern Plains. Fuchs points out that parts of Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas are moving into their eighth or ninth year of continuous drought, and unfortunately, he says, “We don't expect those conditions to change a lot in the short term.”

Fuchs anticipates that the warm, dry temperatures created by the El Niño across the Northern Great Plains will dry out the soils even more in February, March and April, causing drought conditions to persist.

Fuchs and Taylor say the El Niño conditions are expected to continue until April — or longer. “The surface water temperatures have not peaked in the Pacific yet, which indicates El Niño will strengthen for the next few months,” Fuchs explains.

Thus, during the next three to five months, the South should continue to see moisture, and Fuchs predicts New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma will see the most improvement in drought conditions. He tempers that by saying, “This will be a start, but it is slow coming out of a drought. Multi-year improvement in precipitation is needed to fully recover from drought.”

Meanwhile, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas will see drought linger, Fuchs anticipates. He says the best hope for improvement in moisture conditions is if some of these areas can catch a spring snowstorm.

“Winter storms are one of those things that are unpredictable and can dramatically improve moisture conditions for the season,” he says.

Taylor adds that there is a chance the El Niño could end as abruptly as it began, which could mean more moisture for the North. But he also indicates that, according to his review of historical weather records of the last 800 years, there is an 18-year cycle of widespread drought in the U.S. (with 23 years being the longest span between such events.)

In recent years, Taylor says, “local drought has occurred, but not what would be considered widespread (particularly in the Corn Belt).”

He says 1988 — 19 years ago — was the most recent documented widespread drought in the U.S. Thus, he anticipates a year of widespread drought is still to come.

New Tools For Tracking Drought

The National Drought Mitigation Center is developing Web-based tools to help producers monitor drought conditions and use historical information to help make decisions.

Many tools will be site-specific down to the county level and available by 2008. They will include:

  • The Vegetation Drought Response Index, mapping spatial patterns of vegetation conditions with weather data.

  • A Drought Risk Atlas, with regional drought trends over the past century.

  • The Ranching Drought Plan, allowing producers to input data of conditions and get customized decision-making guides for their operations.

  • A Drought Monitor Decision Support System.

  • A Drought Impact Report, allowing grower feedback on drought conditions.

For more information, visit drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html or www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/forecasts/.