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Will Another Dust Bowl Hit the U.S. Great Plains?

Jeff Caldwell 05/14/2014 @ 1:37pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Some dust storms during the 1930s left parts of the Plains -- and everything on them -- under 6 feet of dust . . . dust from soil that nurtured the lifeblood of this region.

"My great uncle would talk about one morning when a dust storm rolled in while he was eating pancakes. When he finished, there was a white spot on his plate where the pancakes had been," recalls Doug Norris of Dallas, Texas. "The rest of the plate was black with dirt."

The '30s brought agricultural and cultural disaster to the central and southern Plains. Farmers plowed up native sod to plant the era's boom crop, hard red winter wheat. That opportunity, however, fell in line with severe drought, a combination that ultimately led to the Dust Bowl. Farmers and their families were forced out of the region in droves, and those who stayed struggled through complete destitution brought on by an environmental and human catastrophe that hasn't been replicated in the 80 years since.

But could it happen again?

Three to five years of severe drought from the Plains to the West Coast have turned many once-fertile fields and pastures to places where some farmers and ranchers speculate it could take years to restore the soil structure that once supported more bountiful crop yields.

"Let me make a simple statement that encompasses the reality we face. In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, we had only three years below 15 inches of rain, the lowest being 13, and they were not consecutive. We just finished a year at 12 inches, which followed a year at 8 inches behind a year at 6.5 inches. That is three years without a dryland crop for cover to hold the ground," says Hugoton, Kansas, farmer Richard James. "Our normal is 20, and in the '30s, there were three years above normal. We have been nearly 12 years since we have seen 'normal.'"

Short-term worries

So, what lies ahead? In the short-term, things look fairly bleak. The 2014 HRW wheat crop is, in some spots, for all intents and purposes, fried. A recent Kansas Wheat Tour shows while parts of that state's crop will likely yield near average, other areas -- namely western and southwest Kansas -- will see another crop failure. It's months and years in the making.

"We are losing the fallow ground first because last year's wheat stubble was so poor it will not stand the wind that is a part of the climate of the area. We are productive in spite of it because of the development of no-till and chemical fallow. We save every stitch of stubble we can to handle the wind," James says. "There are native pastures in the area that have not had a cow on them in over three years, and the grass continues to deteriorate."

The drought's damage does vary in severity. Some parts of Kansas will likely see a wheat crop closer to "normal" yield this year. But there isn't a part of the state -- much like the vast majority of the central and southern Plains -- that isn't touched by the drought.

"One thing that really stood out about this crop is the extent of the drought damage. It wasn’t just a portion of the state, or just one region, but rather was affecting the entire crop,” Kansas Wheat director Justin Gilpin said after a tour of the state's wheat crop this spring. And the prognosis is even worse for other crops in addition to the usually drought-hardy HRW wheat crop.

"Corn? Only if you're nuts or have irrigation and still have available water. Soybeans: Kind of like corn, or the select few who farm for an insurance check might be in business this year," Otis, Kansas, wheat and sorghum farmer Darrin Steinert says of the crop prospects in his area this year, adding his area's wheat crop will likely yield 10% to 20% of normal, while pasture conditions will support cattle numbers that are "the lowest in my lifetime."

Adds James: "We have been in a dust bowl the last few years, only saved by great farming practices and irrigation on 30% of the area."

The data back up these farmers' observations, including James' that just shy of 27 inches of rain has fallen over the last three years in his area; Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center says he's watched rainfall totals hover at historically low levels for quite some time in the Plains, and as of right now, there's not much in the form of immediate relief on the horizon for the region.

"Soil moisture and groundwater levels are hurting well in front of the peak demand season as the cumulative impacts of such an intense multiyear drought are already glaringly evident, and it’s only early May. Precipitation totals for the year are running just 25% to 50% of normal, or worse, for many locales across southern Kansas," says Svoboda, one of the moderators of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor that tracks drought conditions around the nation. "The story is even bleaker in the southern Plains, where the heat and drought described above for Kansas are even more pronounced and entrenched across western Oklahoma and much of Texas as well."

And the worst part of this weather pattern is this: It's early in the growing season. Very early.

"We've had some dust storms, no question. Nothing's been as bad as the Dust Bowl, but we are talking about this in May," says Oklahoma Conservation Commission executive director Mike Thralls. "We've got a whole summer to go. That's what's scary."

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