Mike Rankin

For those in the business of food production, extreme weather events seem to stick to our brains like a tick on a long-haired dog. We just don’t forget . . . ever.

When I think of drought, the years 1988 and 2012 immediately come to mind. The former was the year I finished graduate school and proceeded to job hunt. The growing season began dry and remained that way for weeks, then months. It was a long, hot, and widespread drought. At one point, 45% of the continental U.S. was categorized as extreme drought, and 11 states declared all of their counties disaster areas. The average U.S. corn yield that year didn’t break 85 bushels per acre. Hayfields and pastures were crispy by mid-summer.

I started my career as an extension agent in mid-August of 1988. The crops looked brutal and were starved for moisture. Then, soon after my first day on the job, it started to rain. From that point forward, I was known as the drought-breaker in my area. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and there would soon be the typical drought fallout.

In 2012, I was unable to muster any moisture relief, and my reputation waned.

As we head into the 2023 growing season, many growers in the Great Plains and western Corn Belt are praying the year will provide more rainfall than the past few have. The recent dryness has hit cattle and hay country hard.

Even if you don’t farm or ranch in those parched regions, you’ve still been impacted. Hay stocks are at their lowest level since the early 1950s. The nation’s beef cow herd numbers the fewest head since the early 1960s. Replacement heifers are also in short supply, with many more than usual ending their productive lives in the feedlot because grass was short.

By now, if you haven’t got the message that any grazing plan isn’t complete without a drought component, then you’re not paying attention. Having a plan in place that identifies preemptive triggers for action can mean the difference between suffering a paper cut or an amputation.

Cloudier skies ahead?

Governing our weather patterns from year to year is the surface temperature of a relatively small portion of the ocean. We can attribute the recent drought — and many before — to La Niña, which is the name given to a condition when the ocean surface is cool.

“We’ve been locked into a La Niña weather pattern since 2020, and it has been historically long in duration and strength, but she’s just about done,” asserted Matt Makens during the CattleFax Outlook Seminar at the recent Cattle Industry Convention in New Orleans. Makens is a meteorologist and atmospheric scientist with Makens Weather LLC based in Colorado.

The ocean is warming up, he noted. Moisture conditions have already started to improve this winter in previously drought-stricken areas. “By spring, our models suggest that a La Niña will only be about 14% likely, down from the current 60%,” Makens said.

The reverse situation from La Niña is El Niño, which occurs when the ocean surface warms. Both of these dominant patterns are cause for extreme weather in localized regions around the world. The shift from one to another can take months or seasons for the atmosphere to adjust, and there is often a period of neutrality.

Once La Niña bids adieu sometime in late spring, weather conditions will begin to change. “I expect a more neutral-based forecast as the atmosphere begins to catch up with the ocean conditions,” Makens said. “This means we begin to eliminate the extremes of an El Niño or La Niña. Overall, it should be a more favorable summer for moisture compared to the past several years. Other than the Southwest, temperatures are expected to be neutral to cooler than average in pockets,” he added.

Makens’ weather models suggest that there is only a 52% probability that we’ll have an El Niño weather pattern by next fall. He said that if El Niño does get into high gear, expect a lot more rainfall than what a neutral fall might look like. “I think this is not likely to happen; it’s too quick of a transition,” the meteorologist stated. “El Niño will kick in, but give it some time.”

The overriding theme to Makens’ weather message was one of mid-term optimism, which is a trait inherent in most farmers and ranchers; it has to be for the sake of mental survival. This doesn’t look like a year that will likely be etched in our weather gray matter, but just in case, have a drought plan.

Happy foraging,

Mike Rankin

This article appeared in the March 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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