With a high probability of below-average dryland yields during the coming growing season, Nebraska farmers are reviewing their planting, cropping, irrigating, livestock and insurance options.
In addition, the forecast just got drier. University of Nebraska Climatologist Al Dutcher said in mid-February the new long-lead forecast showed the dry weather pattern continuing "indefinitely" through the end of the year.
"We need to see above-normal precipitation," Dutcher said. Lack of fall rains left the eastern half of the state five to seven inches short of precipitation. Despite a Feb. 18 snow that blanketed much of the state with four to eight inches of snow, Nebraska almost is totally dry and is the driest state in Midwest, Dutcher said. Ninety-three percent of the land is short or very short in topsoil moisture, and 87% is short or very short in subsoil moisture. Soil moisture recharge has been virtually non-existent since the end of the 1999 growing season.
"We need one-half to three-fourths inch of water each week through the end of April to make up for the deficiencies," he said.
If there is one good thing about the dry pattern, it is that farmers and ranchers have had time to think about their options. Is the winter wheat alive and worth salvaging? Should producers plant the seed delivered to the farmstead or exchange it for another crop or a shorter-season variety? What planting and herbicide adjustments need to be made this year? What adjustments will livestock producers need to make? And, finally, how much crop insurance does a farmer need to guarantee at least some income?
Knowing the tough year ahead, some producers may think of safeguarding themselves with extra crop insurance. However, the amount of crop insurance is based on needs, rather than what might happen, said Doug Jose, NU farm management specialist.
"You decide what your needs are, based on your financial situation, your own risk tolerance, your marketing plan, then decide what coverage you want," Jose said. There are too many factors involved to decide to buy more crop insurance based on the weather forecasts, Jose said. Instead, producers must ask what low yields or a wipeout would do to their operations financially, then decide how much insurance to buy.
While the federal government has provided disaster relief for weather and price-related events, Jose said producers should not depend on government aid as a form of crop insurance.
Wheat producers soon will determine whether their stands should be left, replaced with another crop or the land fallowed, said Bob Klein, cropping systems specialist, at the West Central Research and Extension Center, in North Platte. If wheat is dead or patchy, it can be replaced with another crop, such as sunflowers, proso millet or grain sorghum. Or the ground can be fallowed and planted back to wheat this fall. Chinch bugs, an especially drought-thriving insect, will be poised to invade struggling wheat fields in southeast Nebraska, but destroying the crop will thwart high populations.
Grain sorghum acreage may increase this year, because of its drought tolerance, Klein said. Of Nebraska's three main row crops, grain sorghum requires less water than corn or soybeans. Under dry conditions, sorghum leaves roll inward, so the plant can go dormant for several weeks. Even if the plant withers, it can resume growth after a rain. The dormancy may leave grain immature at frost, Klein said. A guideline some follow is to plant grain sorghum instead of corn, if less than three feet of soil moisture is present at planting. The decision on what to plant also is affected by crop insurance yields and past crop history.
Much seed is delivered or on its way to the farmyard, but some farmers may exchange that seed for a drought-resistant crop or shorter-season varieties. Company policy varies, but many companies are willing to make exchanges to meet farmer needs. Short-season crops mature quicker and require less moisture, but may have less yield.
Avoiding tillage is one way to help conserve what little moisture there is. Paul Jasa, NU Extension engineer, said each tillage pass uses up to one-half to one inch of soil moisture and makes it more erosion-susceptible.
This spring, Jasa suggests planting at least one-half inch deeper than usual, to 2.5 inches for corn and to two inches for grain sorghum and soybeans. Corn, especially, needs to be planted to a sufficient depth or nodal roots will try forming at the soil surface and the plant will fall over. To help plant deeper, Jasa recommends adding 300 pounds per row to the planter to help penetrate dry soils.
Pre-emergence herbicide application typically is a part of spring field work. Rain or other moisture helps incorporate them, but with little moisture in the forecast, their effectiveness will be limited, said Jeff Rawlinson, NU agronomy technologist. The drought won't deter weeds, but may shift from cool-season grass weeds toward broadleaf weeds, such as kochia and Russian thistle, and warm-season annual grasses, such as sandbur and giant foxtail. More shifts in weed species composition may occur if drought conditions continue over the next few years, Rawlinson said. For the short term, there may not be several weed flushes throughout the growing season. Dryland producers may plant thinner populations this year to conserve moisture, he noted, although planting too thin invites more weeds.
Ponds, creeks and streams have started to dry up in pasture ground, according to Bruce Anderson, NU forage specialist. Many livestock producers may need to haul water to summer pastures. While that amounts to extra work, it may pay off: Anderson said calves often weigh 50 pounds heavier at weaning just from drinking clean tank water, rather than pond water. Producers also will need to plan now if they are going to reduce stocking rates, sell cull cows or wean calves earlier, to save on available forage.
For a listing of drought-related resources, see the ruralroutes.unl.edu, a Cooperative Extension World Wide Web site created in NU's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.