Ailing winter wheat, the crop with nine lives, has been resuscitated again — thanks to the snow blanketing the Central Plains last week.
But for farmers, whether they grow wheat, corn or soybeans, the snow has not been nearly enough to allay drought fears for this year.
Soils lack the surface moisture needed for crops to thrive. Mountain snowpack, which replenishes streams and reservoirs, is behind schedule. And drought years tend to travel in packs.
The epicenter of the nation's most extensive drought since at least the 1950s continues to be Nebraska, where three-fourths of the state is in the worst possible shape: exceptional drought. Only 4 percent of Nebraska has had enough moisture to earn the dubious luxury of “severe” drought.
All of Iowa is in drought, too, but it's not nearly as bad there as in Nebraska.
This week's snow delivered the most widespread shot of moisture the region has seen in a long time, said Von Johnson, chairman of the Nebraska Wheat Board.
Most of Nebraska and western Iowa received one-third to three-quarters of an inch of water from the snow, the National Weather Service said.
Much of it won't soak into the ground because most of Nebraska's soils are frozen, but even the runoff will be helpful, replenishing streams, stock ponds and reservoirs.
In Nebraska, farmers and ranchers are fearing a replay, or worse, of last summer's historic “flash drought,” when pastures withered, non-irrigated corn died, ranchers sold off cattle and the worst wildfires on record raced across the landscape.
As of late January, about 60 percent of winter wheat and hay were in areas of drought, and nearly 70 percent of cattle, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
In Nebraska, the USDA couldn't find a winter wheat field in excellent shape in late January. The survey found only 8 percent of Nebraska wheat in good shape. The rest was fair to poor, and mostly the latter.
“This is going to take a lot more than a couple of snowstorms,” Johnson said. “We'll need a lot more moisture for everything to come out OK this year.”
In the 70 years that the Johnson family has grown wheat near Cambridge, it has not seen a crop as destitute as this winter's.
On the Johnson farm, the ground was so dry last fall that when Johnson planted, the soil refused to nourish the seed. None of the wheat sprouted — which had never happened in the family's memory, Johnson said.
“We're in new territory,” he said. “It all depends upon the weather.”
Typically, the wheat Johnson plants is so stout in the face of extreme weather that it goes by the name “hardy” red winter wheat.
It is planted in the fall so that it can germinate with that season's rains. It relies on the chill of winter to go dormant and then surges back to life with spring rains. Harvest typically occurs just as summer's heat arrives.
Now, Johnson doesn't know what to expect with a crop that is months behind in germinating and, until it germinates, can't go dormant.
And moisture? “It's kind of hand-to-mouth,” he said.
Ten to 12 inches of snow fell on the Johnson farm — a good thing — but winds pushed it about, and stronger winds are expected early next week.
These intricate relationships between weather, water, temperature and crops are one of the reasons that decision-making in the face of a second year of drought is complicated.
In the Central Plains, about 30 percent to 40 percent of the year's precipitation falls from March through May. The odds favor below-normal precipitation in Johnson's area of the state during those three months — and no sign, one way or another, for the rest of Nebraska and western Iowa, according to a seasonal outlook published Thursday by the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.
“Improvement seems unlikely,” according to the U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, also published Thursday.
Nebraska is also dependent on snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, because runoff replenishes the reservoirs and streams that sustain irrigation.
In early February, snowpack was running noticeably behind, but recent snows have given it a significant boost, according to the National Resources Conservation Service. The most crucial months for building snowpack lie ahead.
The drought is being watched nationally. A panel of federal officials from several branches of government released a briefing Thursday on drought conditions that examined everything from fire risk to crop yields to economic impact.
There was no good news in it.
The 2012-13 drought is on track to be one of the nation's costliest disasters. Already, impacts are approaching at least $35 million, according to the drought outlook published Thursday.
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