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323398

Drought worsens in wheat-growing Plains

The long-running drought that covers more than half of the continental United States — mostly west of the Mississippi — worsened in the central and southern Plains last week, the heart of U.S. winter wheat production, said the government’s Drought Monitor on Thursday. In Kansas, the No. 1 winter wheat state, 31% of the crop was rated as being in poor or very poor condition.

“Despite some snow on the High Plains … the general theme was toward gradually worsening drought conditions, especially in Kansas and Nebraska,” said the weekly report by the USDA and NOAA. Topsoil moisture was rated as short or very short in 77% of Kansas, 73% of Nebraska, and 82% of Colorado.

Winter wheat conditions also worsened in Texas and Oklahoma as the drought deepened. More than 86% of Texas and more than 88% of Oklahoma was covered by drought. In Kansas, the figure was nearly 60%, and in Nebraska, it was 35%.

“Worsening drought on the Plains has also contributed to several midwinter wildfires; a few, including the Mill Creek Fire in Shackleford County, Texas — which was ignited on January 15 — torched more than 1,000 acres of brush and grass,” said the Drought Monitor. “Burn bans were in effect for dozens of counties in Oklahoma and Texas.”

Growers sowed 34.4 million acres of winter wheat, the dominant U.S. variety, for harvest this year, a marginal increase from last year. Winter wheat is planted and sprouts in the fall, goes dormant during the winter, and matures in the spring. Although wheat is a famously hardy crop, persistently dry weather is a threat.

In good news for the struggling wheat crop, as much as 27 inches of snow fell in western Kansas early this week, said Lisa Teachman, chief meteorologist at KSN-TV in Wichita. “This recent moisture surplus will help farms hang on until the next decent system, which will be next week,” she said.

More than 40% of the continental United States has experienced drought for the past 70 weeks, NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information said on social media.

Overall, 68% of winter wheat territory, which stretches from the mid-Atlantic states to California and the Pacific Northwest, was in drought, said the USDA’s “Ag in Drought” website. So was 78% of durum wheat land, 76% of barley land, and 75% of sorghum land. Durum wheat is grown mostly in the northern Plains, California, and Arizona. Sorghum is grown mostly in the Plains and the western Corn Belt.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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