The conditions aren’t fit for man or beast, Jeff Smith laments after
a day of trudging through shin-deep snow to care for his pregnant cows and
It’s calving season on his McPherson County
operation, and the foot and a half of snow dumped here has made his job even
Yet despite the cold weather and the damp wind that soaks through
to the bones, along with the long, hard day of moving cattle out of the weather
and the little sleep from checking on them, Smith admits it’s hard to curse
something so blessed.
“We needed this,” he said of the snow that is helping chip away
at the multiyear drought plaguing Kansas.
“The wheat farmer in me is excited and very happy. The wheat was in desperate
need of moisture.
“I just hope this will open things up so we start getting rain in
March and April and put water in the ponds.”
Yet, it’s not near enough across a landscape that has been sucked
dry for nearly three years.
The heavy snow that fell across Kansas
in two sweeps over the past five days was a welcome sight for Kansas farmers – many of whom for three
years have watched their crops and pastures bake and their water supplies dry
up as little relief came from the sky.
Nevertheless, while the foot to two feet of white blanket will
provide some relief, Smith and others across the state admit the obvious.
This is no drought buster.
“It’s a good start,” said Barber County Extension Agent Tim
Marshall, who battled the storm Monday to feed his calves. “But we’re still
trying to just put a Band-Aid on something that needs stitches.”
Across much of the Midwest,
drought has persisted since summer 2010. At present, the worst conditions are in
a swath from the Dakotas to Oklahoma.
All of Kansas
remains in a severe to exceptional drought, with more than 75 percent of the
state rated as extreme to exceptional, the highest ratings by the U.S. Drought
The Kansas Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of the
2012 drought at more than $3 billion in crop losses - the loss of production
and the price farmers would have received.
The 2011 drought cost Kansas
production agriculture roughly $1.8 billion, the department estimated last year,
along with about $366 million in herd liquidation that year as cattle flooded
livestock auction houses by midsummer.
Meanwhile, the government paid out more than $1.3 billion in crop
insurance indemnity payments for failed commodities last year, according to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency. The agency already has
covered more than $200,000 for crop losses this year, largely for wheat.
Forecasters aren’t predicting an end of the drought anytime soon.
The National Weather Service’s Climate
expects the drought to persist through April.
Typically, experts estimate the water equivalent of snow at a 10
to 1 ratio – every 10 inches of snow brings an inch of moisture. The water
equivalent from the past two storms, however, varied depending on the
temperature, Kansas State Climatologist Mary Knapp said.
There probably will be some runoff with the snow, which could
help pond and river conditions, she said. However, even if the snow would not
have blown around from Monday’s gusty day, and even if it were to melt directly
into the ground, the moisture wouldn’t be nearly enough.
“If you look at it as a 13-inch deficit, which is common in your
area and other areas, you would need 130 inches of snow to end the drought,” Knapp
said. “That’s an awful lot of snow.”
should see some improvement in the drought, Knapp said. For instance, areas
that might have been in an exceptional drought could move to the extreme
The storm did improve the condition of the Kansas wheat crop, which was suffering from
drought stress, Kansas State University Agronomist John Holman said.
At present, roughly 36 percent of the Kansas wheat crop is rated as poor or very
poor, according to the Kansas Agriculture Statistics Service.
Some winter wheat planted last fall has yet to germinate, Barber
County Agent Marshall said.
“We had a lot of wheat that never came out of the ground last
fall,” he said. “Maybe (the snow) will help it emerge.”
“It seems like, maybe, we’re switching patterns,” Marshall said.
Snow also will provide insulation for the winter wheat, Holman
Knapp said the state needs the wet weather pattern to continue
into the late spring and early summer to help alleviate the drought.
“At this time, however, the outlook isn’t very encouraging,” she
She did say forecasters expect the second week of March to be
cooler and wetter than average, compared to last year’s hotter, drier
Ingalls farmer Mike O’Brate said he was becoming worried as he
headed into spring. His wheat crop was suffering from the lack of moisture.
The present drought has been the worst he has experienced. He
didn’t harvest a wheat crop in 2011 and cut all his corn for silage that same
year. Last year was better, but still the drought cut into yields.
The last decent rainfall came during wheat planting last fall. On
Monday, he estimated 10 inches of snow had fallen since Thursday.
“This snow is a blessing, and a big share of it stayed on the fields,”
O’Brate said, noting it will help the struggling wheat and keep irrigation
systems off a little longer. “But we need a lot more rain before spring. This
isn’t over, but it will get us a long ways into spring.”
That is what Holman is hoping, noting current precipitation won’t
take the wheat crop through harvest.
“I hope this is a sign of things to come,” he said. “We need this
and need more of it. … We’re not out of a drought, yet. But every little bit we
get well take it.”