Archive for Friday, February 22, 2013

Area farmers, ranchers call snow blast a ‘good start’

February 22, 2013


While city dwellers in Lawrence were digging out from what some people called a "historic" snow blast this week, Loren Baldwin was less than impressed with the weather.

"This doesn't fix anything," said Baldwin, who raises cattle and grows corn, soybeans and sorghum on his farm west of Lawrence in Clinton Township. "This is a great start. We're thankful for it. We've been thankful for whatever we can get the last 12 months. But we're definitely going to need some more."

And so the drought continues.

As a general rule, experts say, 10 to 12 inches of snow equals about one inch of rain. So in a region that was already about seven inches short of precipitation over the last year, this week's snow in northeast Kansas was just a drop in the bucket for farmers and ranchers.

"We have 15 ponds on places we lease or own, and only one of them has water in it," Baldwin said. "We've hauled water since June of last year. Our situation is pretty dire."

Baldwin said as the snow melts, most of it will be absorbed into the parched ground like a sponge. Little if any of it will run off to refill stock ponds that have run dry.

Agriculture officials say that's the situation throughout Kansas, and it gets worse the farther west one travels.

At the end of January, 39 percent of the Kansas winter wheat crop was rated in "poor" or "very poor" condition, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service, the state-level office of a federal agency that monitors crop and livestock conditions throughout the country. Forty-one percent was rated "fair," and only 1 percent was rated "excellent."

For livestock producers, the situation has been worse. Range and pasture conditions were rated 55 percent "very poor," and 30 percent "poor."

That's due to a continuing, prolonged drought that has sapped the soil of most of its moisture. Only about 10 to 15 percent the farmland in Kansas was rated as having "adequate" topsoil moisture. The rest was rated as "short" or "very short." No farmland in Kansas has registered a surplus of topsoil moisture since June of last year.

Justin Knopf, who farms and raises livestock in Saline County in central Kansas, knows those conditions well.

"Last I looked, we were around 12 to 13 inches behind normal precipitation in the last 12-month period," Knopf said. "In the near term, our main concern is the winter wheat crop, what kind of soil moisture we have as it begins to green up in the spring. ... Even with this snow, we still need very timely precipitation events as we get into spring and early part of summer."

Those conditions have a big impact on a farmer's bottom line, Knopf said.

"Right now, grain and commodity prices have been above average," he said. "However, when our bushels are reduced, or we don't raise much of a crop at all, it makes it very difficult to take advantage of the high prices if we don't have much to sell."

The question many people are asking is whether the current drought is part of a normal cyclical pattern that occurs in the Great Plains about once every 15 to 30 years, or whether it's part of a long-term change in the region's, and the planet's climate.

But Knopf says for most agricultural producers, that's an academic question because the solutions are the same either way.

"In a weather pattern like this, we rely heavily on risk management tools," he said. "Crop insurance is an important risk management tool for a lot of dry land farmers in Kansas."

But a more important tool, he said, is shifting to different farming practices: no-till farming that puts more organic matter back in the soil, improving its nutritional value and helping it retain more water; and the use of different hybrid crops that do better in hotter, drier conditions.

"It's important to know we're capturing every bit of water in those soils we can from weather events like this," he said. "That's improving our soil health also. It's about producing more with less water."


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