Every season has its ups and downs, but for the most part, farmers and ranchers have hope the future will look brighter. But as they face another possible drought reminiscent of the dust bowl days, the glass-half-full approach is looking increasingly unrealistic.
Despite precipitation levels at or slightly above normal so far in 2013 for South Central Kansas, the drought of recent years still causes a need to catch up.
Last month, Stu Duncan, agronomist for K-State Research and Extension, said it would take at least 15 inches of rain in the spring and summertime to begin to remedy the damage.
“That would go a long way,” he said. “We’re pretty short in a lot of areas as far as stock ponds go. And we have a lot of dry soil we’re dealing with.”
But the outlook doesn’t look promising.
According to the National Weather Service, the drought outlook through the end of May is predicted to persist or intensify in Kansas. This bleak forecast stretches even further, stretching from Nebraska to Texas and as far west as Nevada and Southern California.
Agriculture producers who once thought the region’s lack of precipitation would be short-lived are reacting.
Cattle producers have culled their herds and have been hauling water in place of parched stock ponds.
And crop producers are turning to more drought-resistant crops and collecting insurance on fields that weren’t.
For the United States, the recent drought has resulted in a decrease in cattle head. As of the beginning of the year, all cattle and calves in the U.S. totaled 89.3 million head, 2 percent lower than a year earlier. This is the lowest Jan. 1 inventory since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952, according to Kansas Agriculture Statistics.
The same report showed Kansas at 5.85 million head, down 4 percent from the previous year — the lowest Jan. 1 inventory since 1992 at 5.65 million head.
Feedlots and major meat packing plants are closing throughout the U.S., and operators say they don’t expect a recovery anytime soon, with high feed prices, much of the country still in drought and a long time needed to rebuild herds, according to the Associated Press.
Ryan Flaming, Harvey County agriculture extension agent in Harvey County, said the county has reduced their herds by 30 percent in the recent past. Some even abandoned productions entirely.
“This is the first time I’ve seen any of that happen, especially to this extent,” he said.
Those who have continued production are hauling water to their cattle because stock ponds are dried up, a practice Flaming said could double costs.
Page 2 of 3 - Feed is also an area of concern, as grass is fleeting in the grazing fields and producers must turn to hay and chopped silage.
In a recent report, Kansas Agriculture Statistics showed range and pasture conditions in Kansas were rated 49 percent very poor, 31 percent poor, 7 percent fair, and 3 percent good. The stock water supplies were 37 percent very short, 31 percent short and 22 percent adequate.
Cattle producers also had a tough time with newborn calves in the recent snow.
In some ways, the agriculture agent said cattle producers are in a tougher spot than crop producers, as there is more insurance coverage for inclement conditions.
“They’re suffering quite a bit from it,” he said.
A report last month by Kansas Agriculture Statistics showed topsoil moisture supplies were rated 48 percent very short, 37 percent short, and 15 percent adequate. The most recent report shows those levels are now at 17 percent very short, 30 percent short, and 50 percent adequate and 3 percent surplus.
Although recent snow and rain have improved some conditions, Randy Hein, Sumner County agriculture extension agent, said this lack of moisture is has forced many crop producers to rethink their plans for the coming seasons. Some, for example, are switching from corn, which requires more precipitation for growth, to milo or soybeans, which are less demanding. Others are replacing half of their irrigated corn circle with wheat, which is another drought-tolerant crop.
Hein said he hadn’t heard of many in the county who had gone over their irrigation pump limit. Others in the state have come close or gone over, however.
Those not using irrigation have struggled to collect yield in recent years.
Terry Bornholdt or Raleigh Insurance in Inman said the amount of loss payments depend on the producer, but she has seen more cases for devastating losses than those that were relatively unaffected by the drought.
“We’ve paid some pretty hefty loss amounts,” she said. “It keeps them in the ballgame for next year.”
Bornholdt said she hasn’t noticed many change their policies to cover more losses. She has seen they are more attentive two their policies, however.
Hein said this safety net helps producers, but isn’t what they want for a third year in a row.
“You can only go so many years collecting insurance,” Hein said. “I think most are hoping for the best and planning for the worst.”
Producers aren’t the only ones planning. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s has released its yearly crop price projections, assume an average year of production.
Page 3 of 3 - Wheat prices, basked on a June through May market year, are expected to remain fairly steady, about $7.90 for this market year and $7 for the upcoming market year.
Corn, grain sorghum and soybeans are expected to drop during the next marketing year, which runs on a September through August marketing year.
Corn is projected to drop from $7.80 to $4.80. Grain sorghum is expected to sink from $7.50 to $4.50. Soybeans follow suit, declining from $15.25 to $10.50.
“Until we get new supplies coming this fall we’ll probably have pretty strong grain markets,” Daniel O’Brien, extension economist for Kansas State Research and Extension, said.
Just like every year, the future is uncertain. But one thing every agriculture producer can agree on is the region is in dire need of water.
“I think people are worried about the drought,” Jonie James, agriculture agent for McPherson County said. “Worried if it’s going to be a third year.”
James said she doesn’t expect the 15-20 inches needed to fall, especially since this is half of the year’s annual precipitation. But anything will improve the land’s state.
The recent snow storms, however, were a good start. This is especially true for wheat, as the snow can slowly melt and continue to seep into the topsoil.
“I think that snow was perfect,” James said. “We could not have received it in a better method to do good things. It’s a good time to have gotten that moisture. I think farmers would much rather work around wet spells than not have moisture.”
But there still is a lot of catching up to do.
“Does that mean the drought’s gone away? No,” she said. “Hopefully we continue to receive these rains to make up for some of what we’re lacking, and also to keep us as close to normal as possible as we move into the summer crop season.”
Contact Jenae Pauls at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @PaulsSentinel