By Daniel Thompson
Reporter 

Local agriculture producers are feeling the effects from the drought, climate change

 

Western Nebraska Observer

Water sources across the state have diminished, including local sites such as the Oliver Reservoir, which has shrunk considerably over the summer months. Local agriculture producers are experiencing the effects of the two-year drought.

Looking at the grasslands along the interstate, passersby and residents alike can witness the effects of the current drought plaguing the state of Nebraska. You can see it in the brittle, wilted leaves of grass that have become completely divorced from their ideal color of green and the rest of the plains sheered in a hue of light brown, parched in the unforgiving heat of the sun to a point that would leave one questioning whether or not they could ever be resurrected.

However, now with the area suffering through its second year of what has been classified as severe drought, the effects have spread through many aspects of life throughout the region, growing in severity witch each passing month, according to Mark Svoboda, Climatologist for the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and one of the authors of the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor.

“Particularly in Western Nebraska, but also the state as a whole, we’re in year two of a drought, and any time you get into that second year of a drought, the impacts are much more cumulative,” Svoboda said.

According to Svoboda, the current conditions stem from the lack of moisture over the fall and winter months of 2012, which led to a lack of the recharge needed entering the 2013 season in order to make up for the deficits acquired in the yields throughout the previous year.

However, the lack of moisture is not the only factor that has led to the lack of recovery in the panhandle but rather the heat waves experienced over the past couple years have also worked to solidify the detrimental aspects of the current climate.

“The droughts are about that too so it’s not just the lack of precipitation. It’s about the temperatures. It’s about the timing. Last year, the folks got into the fields very early. The dryness came on in June. The heat was already there at critical times for crop production which did impact yields significantly,” Svoboda said.

However, though most locals would first think about the crops when considering the effects of the drought on the land, few stop to consider the other areas that it effects. Most notably, how it has affected the local cattle.

“There’s been two things at play. One, not enough recovery in the stands in state. Secondly, because of the drought of 2012, there’s a bad hangover effect of lack of forage or feed storage supply, both in the state and around the region, because everyone was hit so hard last year. That’s caused some feed issues and high cost of feed and high cost of bringing that in when you have to truck it in, especially,” Svoboda said.


In respect to the local cattle, UNL Extension Educator for livestock in Kimball and Banner Counties, Aaron Berger, shed some light on the current conditions, echoing Svoboda’s statements.

“Because of the drought, feed has gone up, some cases two to three times what it was two or three years ago. The feed costs have resulted in people having to sell animals or having to spend a lot more to keep their animals which hurts their ability to make money,” Berger said.

However, many local cattle producers have adjusted to the drought in ways to hold on to as many animals as possible and to keep their livelihood from being put in danger.

“Usually what they do is try to hold on to a core herd of breeding animals so they sell maybe the older animals or the less productive animals, and they try to hold what animals they have left by using what income they’ve got from the animals they sold to buy feed,” Berger said.

Though the situation is still far from ideal, the 2013 season proved to be far less taxing and trying than the previous year.

“Things this year are actually better from a livestock standpoint, because we have gotten more rain this year than last year so there has been some grass and also feed grown. I’m anticipating that harvested feed prices will actually be less this year than last year,” Berger said.

This is a welcome change among cattle producers after the events of last year where they had to struggle to even find affordable feed out of state to be trucked in for their animals.

“Last year, because hay was so scarce, there were people locally who were getting hay out of North Dakota and Canada, because those were the only places they could go to find hay that they could even buy. This year it’s not going to be that kind of situation, because we’ve gotten more rain,” Berger said.

According to Ty Garrett, Grain Originator for the local branch of the Frenchman Valley Coop, this year has also been much easier on producers as far as the annual yield is concerned.

“For wheat this year compared to last year and probably compared to our five year average, we’re at about 70 percent production. For what we’ve produced this year compared to the five year average, I would say we’re up to 70 percent of that,” Garrett said.

However, Garrett will admit that other areas have not been as fortunate in dealing with the current drought conditions.

“Company-wide throughout the drought we’ve seen a lot worse. We had some locations that were down 50 or 60 percent. We’ve been luckier than others,” Garrett said.

Though the business has weathered the trials and tribulations of the drought without much trouble, certain aspects of the drought have certainly put a clench on business transactions.

“Farmers are short bushels so that puts us short bushels. That makes it a lot harder and a lot more competitive too. Of course, when you don’t have the bushels, the price is what’s driving them. We have a lot of elevators around here, and the competition level goes way up when you’re at a shortage of bushels,” Garrett said.

However, though the competition is stiff and the drought shows little sign of breaking soon, Garrett is optimistic about crop production in the coming months.

“This year is looking a lot better than last year with the planting, because they’re getting ready to plant wheat now. With all the moisture that we have had, there will be some soil moisture. I would say we’re in a better place than last year at this time,” Garrett said.

When considering next year’s crops, Frenchman Valley Coop Branch Manager Gene Goulding is a bit more hesitant to look on the situation with favor.

“When they go to plant the wheat, they’re not going to have much moisture to plant the seed in to. Some people did get some moisture. Some people didn’t. Even in the winter, we didn’t get a whole lot of snow. Every year’s a little bit different, and maybe we’ll get some moisture this winter and some rainfall next summer,” Goulding said.

By all accounts, the fall and winter months are what will determine whether or not the drought will break or continue into next year, delving the region deeper into the use of reserves that are quickly running out, according to Svoboda.

“The winter is a critical player in helping our recharge to make up deficits for the prior year. The fall is critical too, because more of it’s in the form of rain which is going to get into the soil before its frozen. Fall is going to be more effective in getting moisture down deeper into the soil profile,” Svoboda said.

According to Svoboda, whether or not the desperately needed moisture will come in the fall and winter months is not easily predictable at this time due to the overall climate

“The tough thing with the long-term forecasting is that we’re not close to the oceans here in Nebraska. The closer you are to the oceans the stronger the influence they play on your climate or weather and the better job they do of predicting 90 days or longer out into the future,” Svoboda said.

Svoboda points at that the atmospheric phenomenon that really started the current drought situations can be attributed to La Nina conditions on the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which leads to cooler than normal sea surface temperatures.

“That is an indicator that sometimes can mean drought in the Midwest or the Great Plains. You’re not going to know exactly where, but in general, there’s less moisture pumped into the atmosphere to be used to generate weather during La Nina winters. We had back to back La Nina winters, and then what happened this last winter, between 2012 and 2013, the oceans kind of went neutral so they were pretty normal,” Svoboda said.

Though the term ‘normal’ generally carries a positive connotation in various circumstances, in this situation it hinders the ability to accurately predict the atmospheric conditions that will affect the area in the coming months.

“When the oceans are normal, they have very little predictive skill as to say what’s going to happen three to six months out. The latest models were still showing neutral carrying over into late this year and maybe into 2014. Some of those models are going back towards La Nina so that would not be good,” Svoboda said.

However, with the conditions remaining neutral at this time, there is still a chance that conditions will shift to an El Nino patter, which leads to warmer sea surface temperatures, hopefully leading to drought conditions easing up in 2014.

“If it goes El Nino, that may be signaling a reversal of fortunes, perhaps. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a more favorable pattern long-term than La Nina would be. If it’s neutral, then they’re not going to have very good predictive skill either way,” Svoboda said.

At this time, it’s simply a waiting game to find out which way conditions will shift.

“It’s a wait and see, because these conditions typically develop later in the year. In really strong events, it could already be developing by now. It’s just that right now it’s neutral, and it’s not. The jury’s still out as to which way this will go,” Scvoboda said.

For now, with a lack of ability to predict the coming trends, one simply must accept and anticipate the conditions to stay as they are, according to Svoboda.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but what you do know is that the drought’s still firmly in place so you’ve got to go with persistence. It’s here, and there’s nothing in the cards showing a major change in the pattern that would say that it’s going to be looking much different than this,” Svoboda said.

It is the hope of Svoboda and residents alike that the fall and winter months will prove to offer some relief for the region in order to avoid the accumulation of another year’s worth of detrimental impacts that would likely ravage the already dwindling supply of reserves throughout the region.

“You get three strikes. One is the fall, the other is the winter, and the third is the Spring. You don’t want to go into spring with an 0-2 count. We at least want to have a good fall under our belt,” Svoboda said. “That’s the key thing. It’s not just a one year hangover at that point, but it’s two years. You’re much more vulnerable. The system is again taking a beating and tapping into its reserves. Well, all the reserves are being used up so going into year three would not be a scenario we want to be staring at come 2014.”

 

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