I was hoping to write this blog once the drought was over, but here we are still bogged down by it. As of December 13, 2013, the most recent Drought monitor map from The University of Nebraska – Lincoln Drought Mitigation Center .
- D0 – Abnormally Dry
- D1 – Moderate Drought
- D2 – Severe Drought
- D3 – Extreme Drought
- D4 – Exceptional Drought
Rawlins County is still almost 100% covered in Extreme Drought (D3 –shown by the color red). Our drought started in September of 2011, and in September of 2013 we had our first above average rainfall month since August 2010 and had (have) hopes that perhaps 2014 will be the year we get out of it. Since September of 2011 we have only received 26.33″ of moisture, which represents just 61% of average moisture. With a two year average of just 13.17″ for the years of 2012 and 2013, we have received less rain than the driest two years of the “Dirty Thirties”; 13.86″ average for 1939-1940. The 1954-1955 time period with 13.34″ had slightly more rainfall than 2012-2013, while the 1955-1956 time period had the exact same total as the 2012-2013 time period (26.33″). The scary part is that the 1954-1956 three year time period had an average of just 12.89″ of moisture, so it wouldn’t be a record-breaking event for 2014 to follow in the same path as the previous two years.
Besides the obvious crop & pasture production problems, it is quite a challenge to keep a solid residue cover in place on the fields to minimize soil losses especially from wind erosion. The “Dirty Thirties” showed us what kind of erosion to expect from full tillage in our High Plains location. Fortunately today, new technologies such as notill management have minimized the serious soil movement we saw 80 years ago. There have still been instances of soil loss over the past two years, even for the best of “notillers” in the area, but the vast majority of acres are covered these days, as evidenced by the relative lack of media coverage about this drought. The Weather Channel now assigns a name to winter storms that last no longer than a week yet droughts, even multi-year droughts, rarely make the news unless something bad happens like a major auto accident on I-70 due to low visibility created by blowing soil. Even then, drought impacted areas are quickly forgotten by all, except for those that live there, and their families.
Recovery times for drought are slow in our area because it takes time for residue (both crop and pasture) to recover and we rarely get months with excessive rain (> 1 STD above mean), even in our wet years. Looking at monthly data for Atwood, Kansas back to 1931, we’ve never had a single month in that time yield more than 9.25″ of moisture. Of the 11 months (out of 984 total months) that recorded a rainfall amount of greater than 7.0″, only in one case was that observed in a year immediately following a drought year (8.22″ of precip. in May of 1990, following the 1989 drought year). Even with that big month in 1990, the total precipitation for the 1990 came in at 21.77″, or just a pinch over average (average annual rainfall for this database is 21.00″), so recovery time was most likely not accelerated.
In Rawlins County, preserving and managing historic reside (or legacy residue) on fields is key to maximizing crop yields due to the advantages a covered environment has over a bare soil environment. Soil temperatures are kept significantly cooler with surface residue and not subject to the large diurnal changes associated with bare soil. Additionally, evaporation rates are minimized at the surface, so precipitation that falls has a higher chance of making it into the soil before it’s evaporated away. In our area, where we have way more sunlight than we have water, every drop of water we save goes directly to yield.
As such, we spend considerable time managing for high residue and then operating in a manner to preserve as much of this residue for as long as we can. In the fall of 2012, conditions were so hard that wheat emergence and establishment was very poor and consequently, in the spring of 2013, many farmers opted to abandon those acres. Rather than leave those acres bare (and subject to wind erosion) through the summer, many folks went back in with grain sorghum just to keep the ground covered.
So what about 2014? As 4th and 5th generation farmers, our families have seen many of these “hard droughts” across the generations, not to mention the many, many more “soft droughts” where rainfall might be short over weeks or months, but not years. As a consequence, drought is just part of our experience on the High Plains and just something to be managed around. Droughts always end, and folks appreciate the rain and the good years that much more. I won’t say there aren’t down times for everyone, but we have mechanisms today such as notill and crop insurance to at least help minimize the environmental and economic destruction associated with drought.
Plus, we always have next year!