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Drought in 2013: Major pains ahead?

Jeff Caldwell 12/28/2012 @ 2:30pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

In 2012, the drought's biggest effects were on the surface. Now if the drought continues as we head into 2013, those agricultural implications will likely unfold into deeper ones, figuratively and literally.

Experts at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, are looking ahead to 2013 with a close eye on how the drought will unfold and what it will mean to both crop prospects and the condition of the soils in which those crops are planted. Thus far, the drought's effects have been mostly in the top tiers of the soil and what's growing there: Wheat, corn, and forage yields were hit hard, and that alone has had implications beyond the field, namely in the prices fetched for the commodities in shortest supply.

But 2012 began with a fuller soil moisture profile than today. That's got some experts bracing for more serious effects on the landscape if the historic flash drought (one whose effects are felt immediately instead of the more typical slow-moving natural disaster) continues.

"The previous five years all had above-normal precipitation, the wettest period in recorded history,” says Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska. "For Nebraska, it was unprecedented. We came into 2012 with a full hydrological system -- rivers, streams, reservoirs, and groundwater. When you’re talking major droughts, this is not a multiyear drought. As we look ahead to 2013, we don’t have that margin built into our hydrological system, so we’re in pretty dire straits.”

Adds NDMC drought resources specialist Kelly Smith: "The first wave of drought impacts has been agricultural. The winter wheat crop outlook across the Great Plains has been reduced, and ranchers are scrambling to find feed for cattle. Hay prices have risen, likely meaning bigger grocery bills as meat and dairy prices climb in response. The second wave of impacts is often hydrological. It is likely [the Mississippi and Missouri river] basins are going to be fairly dry through winter and into next year."Slim recovery chances

Just in the last few days of 2012, moisture has moved through parts of the Plains and Midwest in the form of snow. While that did put a small dent in the drought conditions in places like Iowa, the drought that's impacted about 60% of the contiguous U.S. doesn't loosen its grip until you move east into parts of Indiana and Ohio. And Nebraska state climatologist Al Dutcher said recently there's only about a 10% to 20% chance that the dryness abates by spring.

“Right now the expectations are for increased odds of above-normal temperatures across quite a bit of the nation,” Hayes says. That's been fueled already this winter by a lighter-than-normal snow season in the Rocky Mountains, where much of the surface water supply for western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and western Nebraska originates, adds NDMC climatologist Brian Fuchs in a university report. If that continues through the winter, look for a sharp downturn in groundwater levels come spring.

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