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What will it take to relieve Nebraska’s drought?

Agricultural Extension climatologist Al Dutcher recapped Nebraska’s 2022 harvest, and looked ahead to explain what may happen in weather patterns headed into the new year on a recent call with Successful Farming. According to the Nov.14 Crop Progress Report published by USDA, 100% of soybeans, 95% of corn, and 94% of sorghum in the state has been harvested.

SF: Nebraska farmers finished harvesting soybeans ahead of the five-year average. Why did harvest happen so quickly?

AD: First, there weren’t harvest delays for precipitation. Then, we didn’t actually harvest for grain to the extent that we would up in northeast Nebraska under normal cropping circumstances, so it didn’t take as long to get this crop out of the field. When you’re harvesting 35 to 40 bushel beans compared to 60 to 70 bushel beans, it goes pretty rapidly.

Those were the two leading issues in terms of soybean harvest. It’s also played out that way with the corn and sorghum harvest.

SF: Have the dry conditions increased fire concerns?

AD: We dodged a few bullets with some of the combine fires and some of the wildfires. Thankfully the ones that hit here in southeast Nebraska a little over a week ago occurred after the crop had been primarily harvested. Otherwise we would have had a disaster on our hands with standing crop in the fields. What we need now is just to see some good precipitation.

SF: How did the drought impact the Nebraska soybean crop?

AD: Soybeans are a lot tougher than people give them credit for. They seem to handle drought scenarios a lot better. They can stand there and wait for that precipitation. You can get yield off them if you get some timely rainfall in the month of August. It’s a matter of keeping them alive. That’s exactly where the differences in yields this year were for the most part, depending how things played out during the month of August across eastern Nebraska.

SF: What did the drought do to grain moisture?

AD: With the dry conditions in September and low relative humidity levels, the issue for us was a lot of harvesting low moisture beans. Our Extension educators, two weeks ago, on a crops call were indicating they actually had recorded soybeans in south central Nebraska that were harvested at 6% moisture, which I’d never even heard of. I’d heard 7% and 8%, and wondered about that. These were confirmed 6%. It gives you an idea of just how dry it was out here.

SF: What sort of weather does Nebraska need to turn this drought situation around?

AD: Going forward, from an agricultural perspective, we just want to see normal precipitation through the fall and spring. If we can get normal precipitation during the fall and into the next cropping season, we’ll do well on soybean yields. We’re highly dependent on that here in Nebraska because we’re on the borderline of a semi-humid to semi-arid environment. If you go 30 or 40 miles west of Lincoln, you’re into irrigation country.

But, we might not break the drought because you have to deal with the long term indicators, which are your stream flows, stock ponds, and water tables. Those will be reflective of a longer term pattern and that usually takes an additional six to eight months, minimum, to get that completely taken care of.

SF: Has Nebraska been in this position before?

AD: That was the case in 2013 following the 2012 drought. It essentially took us all the way until October 2013, with a very aggressive precipitation pattern, to eliminate all drought across the state of Nebraksa.

The expectation that we’re going to go completely out of drought by next spring, can it happen? Yes. Is it likely to happen? No. It would require significant moisture. The type of moisture I don’t think most people want to see for winter or spring precipitation because it will cause a lot more issues.

What I would like to see is just a steady accumulation of precipitation over the winter period. We don’t want to get to the point where we don’t get any precipitation for three or for months and have to rely on it in March and April. Those create unrealistic scenarios and usually what happens is you go into extreme wet period like this year in parts of eastern Nebraska. Then, when it shuts off, you’re right back to square one after a couple weeks of extracting that moisture by growing plants.

SF: Are you optimistic a change in Nebraska’s weather pattern is coming?

AD: I’m seeing signs of it right now with these storms that have been moving out of the western United States. We’ve seen some move across the southern Plains, which we need.

There are some positive things and some negative things in regards to the long range forecast. Positive-wise, there’s indication that if the statistical models are right, we will see this La Niña come to an end as we go into 2023. Then, we want to see if we stay in neutral conditions or go into El Niño conditions.

I looked at the last three. We’ve only had three of these multi-year of three year La Niña events in recorded history. One back in the 50s. I believe the other ones were in the 70s and the 90s. At the demise of those La Niña events, if you look at those three, it’s not a lot to go on, but at least it gives your some idea of what happened. We’ve seen a transition over to El Niño conditions within three to 11 months after the end of each of those La Niña triple dippers. Odds are, when this is over, we’re going to go into El Niño conditions.

The quicker we do that, it becomes more problematic for the northern Plains than it is for the southern Plains. El Niño is usually good for the southern Plains and precipitation in the wheat complex. However, when we’re in El Niños through the summer, we tend to see more dryness across the northern Plains as we get a more aggressive southern jet and we have a weaker northern jet.

SF: What does all this mean for farmers who irrigate in Nebraska?

AD: Now we start to get into water restrictions for irrigators because of these multi-year periods of dryness that we’ve had. We’re watching very closely the Lake McConaughey, Platte River system because those feed irrigators in the west central portions of the state. That’s important because it’s one of the highest producing areas of the state in terms of irrigated corn production. We have unbelievable yields that come out of that area.

They usually have an unlimited water supply, or can meet all their needs, but when McConaughey drops below 60%, then you start to look at water restrictions, meaning the limitations of water that is deliverable to these irrigators. As you cut inches [of irrigation] down, so you cut down your ability to produce those bumper yields. Right now, that’s what we’re watching for. 

For the folks in western Nebraska, not only do we want to break this drought, but we want to see big snows in the central and north central Rockies because that’s the feeder source for the reservoir system that eventually brings water into Nebraska for our irrigators.

SF: What does the drought mean for cattle producers in Nebraska?

AD: We’ve got a real problem. If you look at the statistics, it’s just not good. There’s no way to sugar coat it. If you look at pasture and rangeland ratings — which is reflective of western Nebraska because that’s where the vast majority of our pastures are — 45% are very poor, which is your worst rating. USDA says 32% poor, 18% fair, 4% good, and 1% excellent. Those good and excellent ratings are most likely southeast Nebraska.

We’ve been floating now for the better part of eight weeks between 70% or 75% up to the upper 80s, very poor to poor pasture ratings. Barring major blizzard activity, these conditions are going to continue all the way into spring. That means we’re going to have some problems with feed.

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