Archive for Thursday, December 18, 2003

Winter drought deepens in N.W. Kansas

Only 15 percent of wheat germinated

December 18, 2003


— Despite heavy snows throughout much of the state, northwest Kansas remains gripped by the severe drought that took hold during the summer of 2000.

The latest moisture to fall -- a powdery, dry snow the area received this week -- was mostly blown off barren wheat fields and into ditches by seemingly unrelenting winds.

"Out in western Kansas, it was just about as dry as dust," said state climatologist Mary Knapp. "Yes, it was snow, but there wasn't a lot of moisture in it. And the winds were fierce."

It is so dry that little of the winter wheat planted this fall has germinated, with stands averaging about 15 percent, farmers said. Many of the fledgling wheat plants that did come up died when they ran out of moisture, and others have such shallow roots they are susceptible to winter kill. Ungerminated seed lays on the bare ground.

"Last year at this time we were fortunate and got a rain right before we planted wheat so we were able to get the wheat up last year and we had a good stand," said Goodland farmer Ken Palmgren. "But this year we don't have that situation."

Only a small pocket of northeast Kansas is now as dry as the entire northwest part of the state. Fall rains and heavy snows have mostly pulled the rest of the state out of the drought.

So far this month, Goodland has received a total of 5 inches of snow, but just 0.17 inches of liquid was in it, Knapp said. The snow was so powdery, people could blow it off their cars, she said. Meanwhile, Topeka had 7 inches of snow and 1.85 inches of moisture.

And the repeated years of drought have decimated crops and left fields with no stubble to hold the snow.

"If we get a lot of wind this winter, we will have a tremendous amount of wind erosion. ... It could be as bad as it was in the 1930s," said Goodland farmer Fred Schields.

Knapp calls fears of another Dust Bowl a "slight exaggeration" -- pointing to the different cropping techniques used today and the use of irrigation. This drought also has yet to last as long as those in the 1930s.

"What it is more likely is not so much the blowing dust conditions that characterized the Dust Bowl, but the economic conditions that characterized the Dust Bowl," Knapp said.

Richard Wahl is an associate economist with the Kansas Farm Management Assn., which tracks some 2,200 farms and produces an annual farm income analysis for Kansas. He still expects to see an increase in net farm income this year, averaging about $20,000 more per farm in northwest Kansas.

But that income boost is attributed primarily to bigger government payments from the new farm bill and emergency drought disaster payments, Wahl said.

The record high beef prices other Kansas ranchers are now enjoying is not going to help northwest producers much because herds in the area were depleted in 2002 and early 2003 when the pastures dried up.

"The sad thing about this recovery in (beef) prices is that a lot of our producers aren't benefiting from that because they had already liquidated their cow herds," Wahl said.

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