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kansasfarmer's blog

How long can it stay dry?

More or less a rhetorical question.  We know it can stay dry for much longer than it has been.  My theory has always been we had 4 very wet years in a row, and it would stay dry for as long as it was wet, very pessimistic I know.  If I am in fact right, then we are only one quarter of the way through out drought.   While my view has been regarded as overly gloomy by many of my associates in Kansas, there is a growing acceptance that we are in for more than just one dry year.  NOAA has once again put our county in the "extreme" drought category, I am not certain how they determine this, but I believe there is only one more step on the scale.  They also indicate there is a high likelihood this drought will persist at least through the beginning of next summer.

I guess I have made the decision not to seed any wheat this fall.  Some has been planted in my neighborhood, and light rains have brought it up.  I am driven by the economics of crop insurance and the markets, my guarantee is better on corn and soybeans, and the price of wheat today multiplied by what one might reasonably expect to grow is quite a bit less than any of the three major spring crops I could grow, grain sorghum being the third.  With topsoil moisture levels so marginal, and subsoil levels depleted, it just doesn't excite me to plant wheat.  I would just as soon take my chances with a spring crop.

Certainly grain sorghum will play a bigger part in my cropping plans next spring.  "Milo" as we call it has always been the crop of choice for hot dry conditions.  Over the last 15 years with reasonably decent rainfall it has fallen out of favor with many farmers in my area, I expect to see at least a slight resurgence in its popularity and acres.  

With most of the wheat planted that will be planted, and spring planting 6 months away, the number one concern today is stock water.  I heard from a reliable source last week one contractor with a track hoe had 100 ponds on a list for cleaning out.  One of the farms I winter cows on has absolutely no water in the creek or pond now, I am watering out of a drilled well and hoping it will successfully water 95 stock cows and 2 bulls through the winter.  You can buy feed, but when you are clear out of water you are done.

I believe most of the folks in the UK are at least familiar with the term "dirty thirties" referring to the epic drought of the 1930s, listening to the old timers it appears the 1950s saw a dry period that might not have been quite as severe, but was much longer.  The law of averages would indicate we are overdue for a long lived drought.  It will be very interesting to see how our farming practices compare to those of the '30s and '50s.  We are told that no till will conserve moisture, and that seems to be an obvious conclusion, what I think is an unknown is will it conserve enough to make a real economic difference?  

The other point of interest for me is the future of the USA's beef cow herd.   The drought is centered in an area of this nation that has a huge percentage of the beef cattle.  With strong prices for cattle of all classes, many cattlemen may not try all that hard to hold on, it may be more attractive to cash their cows in and either never buy any back, or wait for the day that hopefully is not too far in the future to restock.  The question then will be, restock with what?  Our national beef herd is already at a many decade low, it would seem to me if it would rain enough to break the drought, the demand for breeding stock would drive prices too high to buy back.

I believe I may be repeating myself when I say I have new found respect for my grandfathers and great grandfathers being able to hold on through the '30s and '50s, without crop insurance and many of the conveniences we have today to deal with hot dry weather.  In those two droughts there wasn't even a rural fire service, wildfires here were fought with buckets, wet burlap sacks, and backfires and the entire neighborhood either pitched in to help, or lost everything.  

There is one more nagging question that goes through my mind daily now.  Is this a drought like all the other ones this area has seen over the centuries, or is this driven by climate change?  If it is driven by climate change, could it perhaps be permanent?  Quite honestly I believe this is a normal cyclical drought, but until it is actually over there will be some lingering doubts in my mind regarding the future of farming in this part of Kansas.

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