As the 2007 growing season gets under way, hay growers and livestock producers in different parts of the country find themselves dealing with varying degrees of drought and abnormally dry soil moisture conditions.

As of late March, nearly half of the country was facing abnormally dry conditions, notes Brian Fuchs, climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“On a percentage basis, that's about the same as a year ago,” says Fuchs. “The difference is mostly in where the problems are this year. There have been major improvements in some areas and a worsening in others.”

The most notable positive turn-around has occurred in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. At the end of last year's growing season, the region was locked in what many weather experts referred to as a “one-in-50-year” drought. A key factor in the improved conditions this year was a stretch of above-average rainfall amounts between October and March.

How quickly pasture and rangelands in this area recover will depend, for the most part, on how they were managed during drought. “Areas overgrazed during the last year or year and a half will be the slowest to recover,” says Fuchs. “But areas that were well-maintained and properly managed should make a significant return to fairly normal conditions this year.”

Late winter-early spring snows and rains also significantly improved moisture conditions in the Northern Plains - particularly in Wyoming, southwestern South Dakota and the Nebraska Panhandle. There, too, the pace of recovery will depend on how resources were managed during the drought.

“Producers who implemented conservation measures could see grasslands start to come back as we get into late spring and early summer,” says Fuchs. “In pastures that were grazed bare, though, the recovery will be much slower.”

The duration of the drought could also slow progress. “The precipitation this spring improved topsoil moisture conditions in some areas,” says Fuchs. “The question is just how deep into the soil the effects of the drought extended. In some places, a full production year for hay is something that is probably not going to happen.”

On the flip side, a poor snow season, coupled with an early onset of melting mountain snowpacks due to warm temperatures in March, led to a worsening drought situation in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The good news is that water storage in reservoirs in many parts of the region is better than normal due to a very good water year in 2005-06.

“Hay growers and livestock producers who rely on irrigation should come through in pretty good shape,” notes Fuchs. He adds that, on non-irrigated lands, the dry conditions set the stage for a variety of problems ranging from range fires to reduced forage production.

The Southeast is also experiencing widespread drought coming out of the winter months. Florida is having its worst drought in more than 75 years. As of late March, USDA rated topsoil moisture in the state at 96% very short to short and subsoil moisture as 93% short to very short. There were also significant topsoil/subsoil moisture shortages and poor pasture conditions in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

“Typically, March is the wettest part of the spring in the Southeast, but that wasn't the case this year,” says meteorologist Karl Harker, of AWIS Weather Services, Inc., a private ag weather forecasting service in Auburn, AL. “Going into the growing season with a significant moisture deficit is never a good thing.”

Still, a typical summer weather pattern dominated by periodic thunderstorms in the region could reverse the situation quickly. “The early hay crop might be affected,” says Harker. “But if we get fairly consistent rains starting in June and continuing throughout the summer, things could come back rather quickly.”

USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey agrees. “In the Southeast, it's more of a short-term situation than what's been going on in the Northern Plains,” he says. “With timely rains throughout the summer, the damage done up to this point would not be irreversible.”

A major concern is that a La Niña weather trend could develop sometime in the summer. La Niañ is the periodic cooling of ocean waters in the east-central equatorial Pacific. It can impact the typical alignment of weather patterns around the globe. Typically, a La Niañ leads to drier weather in the southern tier of states.

As of late March, the National Weather Service did not expect any La Niañ impacts on U.S. climate during the May-through-July period. At the same time, it said there is a possibility that, by sometime in the summer, conditions could be right for a weak La Niañ to develop.

“The early indications are that if we have a La Niañ, it would likely occur toward the tail end of the summer,” says Fuchs. “So from a crop production standpoint, the impact may not be that significant.”