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Drought

In a webinar hosted by the National Drought Mitigation Center, South Dakota Climate Office, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Department of Agriculture on June 21, experts focused on the current drought situation in the Northern Plains Region, particularly throughout North and South Dakota, Montana and northeastern Wyoming.

Drought

According to South Dakota State University Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards, the Northern Plains Region is the epicenter of drought for the nation currently, with a rapid onset of severe drought impacts experienced, particularly in the agricultural sector.

“We haven’t seen much yet as far as widespread water restrictions, but it really has affected our producers in the region,” she said.

When looking at the region, Edwards explained that over 21 percent of the area is experiencing some level of drought.

“We can compare that to a few months ago, where about 13 percent of the region was in drought,” commented Edwards.

Over the last month, she stressed some areas have experienced rapid drought onset.

“Some of the areas in Montana and the Dakotas have had three class degradations in their drought conditions over a single month,” Edwards continued.

Wheat

Across the region, Edwards noted that feedback on drought impacts is being received from Extension staff, producers and commodity groups, as well as federal agencies.

The largest impact of the drought throughout the region is the failure of wheat and small grain crops.

“Widespread failures involve winter wheat planted in the fall and spring wheat,” said Edwards.

She continued, “I know there have been tens of thousands of acres at least of failed wheat that’s been cut for hay or sprayed, with the hope that they can replant another crop this season.”

Edwards noted North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana produce approximately 45 percent of the nation’s wheat crop.

“The crop condition for spring wheat this year is worse at this time of year than the previous 10 to 15 years. It’s a really tough situation out there right now,” she commented.

Other impacts

In addition to impacting small grain production, Edwards commented the drought has resulted in multiple burn bans and county declarations of drought.

“I’ve heard discussion of potential firework bans as we get close to the Fourth of July in several areas,” said Edwards.

The cattle sector, particularly in the Dakotas and Montana, has seen impacts in both increased sales and increased illness.

“Cattle sales, including cow/calf pairs, indicate a lot of herd culling going on,” she commented. “We’re also hearing about a lot of livestock illnesses, including dust pneumonias, for people feeding in lots.”

Other impacts for rangelands and pastures include reduced pasture growth, uneven emergence and thin stands.

One of the leading drought indicators this spring was poor livestock water quality, she continued.

“Poor livestock water quality is something we saw early on and was one of the first indicators this spring of a problem,” said Edwards.

Contributing factors

Several factors contributed to the severe drought conditions, but Edwards explained experts are primarily attributing it to a later-than-average fall freeze throughout the region.

“As of mid-November of last year, a lot of frost dates were a few weeks later than usual, resulting in a lot of the bonus growing time in the fall that depleted the soil moisture reserves,” she explained.

While many areas throughout the region, including the South Dakota-North Dakota border, received substantial snowfall, she commented it did not largely impact soil moisture.

Unseasonably warm conditions during other parts of the year also played a role in the drought conditions.

“Looking at the current year to today, certainly the really warm February we had was notable, and the really warm June is contributing, too,” Edwards noted.

Predictions

Currently, eastern Montana and the western Dakotas are experiencing 50 percent or less of the average rainfall for this time of year, said Edwards, noting the region has also been experiencing warmer than average temperatures.

In the eight- to 14-day outlook however, Edwards commented the region is predicted to have cooler than average weather.

“We’re going to see highs in the 60s. The warm dry weather appears to be gradually moving to the east,” she continued. “Moisture wise, there’s some likelihood of being wetter than average. Maybe we’ll see a shift in the moisture pattern.”

While the impacts already felt in the agricultural industry, particularly in wheat and cattle, cannot be reversed, Edwards is hopeful the outlook will be more positive for the rest of the year.

“Looking at July through September, we’re leaning toward warmer than average temperatures for most of the country except Montana,” Edwards said.

She concluded, “The moisture outlook in those three months is more optimistic. We’re hoping this verifies, as well, and we see a wetter than average fall.”

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Douglas – According to Don Day, Jr., meteorologist for the DayWeather Radio Network, producers around the state should pay close attention to weather trends, particularly in the next three years, as patterns indicate there may be a dry period ahead.

Day spoke during the 2017 Cattlemen’s Conference on Aug. 16 about current and upcoming weather trends for Wyoming.

Ocean temperatures

“When we have an El Niño, we have warmer air coming off of the Pacific,” explained Day, noting the jet stream also moves more slowly, resulting in slower moving storms.

Winters in an El Niño situation tend to be warmer than normal with above average precipitation, particularly in the spring.

“Going back to science class, warmer air holds more water,” he said.

Alternatively, water temperatures are colder in a La Niña situation, resulting in lower humidity, and the winters have stronger wind events.

“If the Pacific is cold, the air coming in from the west has less water,” Day commented.

Day explained that almost every major drought in Wyoming is associated with a La Niña.

He continued, “If we have more wind, we have more evaporation. It feeds on itself, and we tend to get into these very dry stretches of weather,” citing the 2012 drought.

Looking back from late 2013-16, Day noted there was above normal precipitation.

“We went into a La Niña late last fall through the early start of winter, and that’s one of the reasons we had such a warm fall and saw eastern Wyoming get so dry,” commented Day.

Solar cycles

According to Day, solar cycles play a key role in climate and, therefore, in weather forecasting.

“There are a lot of folks who think that the impact of solar activity is much less than other people give it credit for,” said Day. “My angle is, that’s like saying the furnace in our house, if we change it, won’t affect the people inside that house.”

He noted the worst drought situations historically are when the sun reaches its minimum activity at the same time as a La Niña.

“We see a pattern developing where the Pacific is definitely going to get colder this winter,” Day commented. “We’re also reaching our solar minimum in 2021.”

When there is an active sun, Day explained there are many cosmic rays globally, resulting in fewer clouds.

“The fewer clouds, the warmer it is because we have more solar radiation coming down,” he explained.

Alternatively, when the sun is at its lowest solar cycle, there are more clouds that block solar radiation, resulting in cooler temperatures.

“What happens is we have an increased chance of a cooler Pacific in a low solar situation,” he commented.

In light of the recent stretch of good precipitation for Wyoming, Day is concerned the solar minimum will coincide with the same time the region is in a La Niña.

Coming years

Looking into the coming years, Day noted he is concerned the state will face a dry cycle between 2018-21.

“We may have one year or we may have three years of dryness,” said Day.

While no computer models were used for his prediction, Day commented his concern is based on observed patterns.

“I am recognizing what’s happened in the past and applying it to what might happen in the future because these patterns repeat themselves,” continued Day. “They’re fairly predictable on a large-scale basis.”

He noted 2016 was “nerve wracking” for meteorologists as the Pacific Ocean was the warmest it had been since 1998.

  “Any time the Pacific reaches this real peak warmth, what happens is the Pacific goes back the other way, and there was a forecast for a pretty strong La Niña this year,” he said.

Planning

“If I were to just give producers a general long-range forecast for spring and summer 2018, I would tell them it’s going to be drier than normal,” said Day. “If we see that trend go into 2019-20 when we’re reaching the solar minimum, that gives me concern.”

While there is nothing that can be done about the weather patterns, Day noted he can look for trends.

  “We’re seeing signs that we’ll be trending dry,” he commented.

Referencing the 2012 drought, Day stressed he is unable to speak to the severity of the weather cycles predicted.

  “It’s hard to guess the severity, but we can tell what the trends might be,” concluded Day. “My heads up to agriculture in the next 12 to 36 months is to plan on dry and hope for wet.”

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The 2012 drought has taken its toll on many tree windbreaks. Producers may want to spend some time surveying their trees to identify not only trees that are dead but ones that are suffering from drought and water stress. 

According to Southwestern Nebraska District Forester Rachel Allison, trees that have turned brown or are turning brown are dead. 

“After having an open, dry winter in 2011 and then 80 degrees in March, followed by a hot, dry summer with virtually no precipitation, all types of trees were affected by the drought in 2012. We had people call who couldn’t understand why trees that were 30 to 40 years old were dying,” she explained. “This drought affected everything from newly established trees to old trees and all types of trees.”

Drought impacts

Allison said some pine trees have had their tops turn brown from lack of water. 

“What happens is there isn’t enough moisture available in the soil for the roots to get moisture and pull it all the way to the top of the tree,” she said. “In some cases, it can only go part way or half up the tree.”

The results of the drought vary depending upon moisture deprivation and type of tree, she said. 

Broadleaf trees may have brown leaf margins and irregular browning in the veins. They may also show brown scorching on the leaves. 

Spruce trees may show some purpling from lack of water. 

Trees like pines may have shorter tip growth. Allison showed one instance where the tips had grown five inches in a good year and only an inch during the drought. 

Damaged trees

These trees may also suffer more damage from winter freeze and burning, since they are already drought stressed.

“People may notice some white tips on the pine trees. This is uniform needle dieback, which is mainly caused by lack of water,” she said. “If it was caused by insects or disease, the white tips would be more sporadic than uniform.”

Allison said producers should make time to assess damage to their tree windbreaks. 

Moisture needs

One of the first things to evaluate is the soil moisture, which can be determined with a screwdriver, soil probe or a rod or dowel. 

“Producers should be able to push the rod in at least down to 12 inches,” Allison said. “Eighteen inches is even better.” 

If the trees are lacking water, Allison recommends watering them through a dripline, water wagon or hose. 

“Trees do better with infrequent rainfall events and normally survive fairly well in years with average rainfall,” she said. “In windbreaks with a drip system that can be turned on as needed, water the trees at least once or twice a summer.”

“Run the water until the moisture in the soil is down several inches,” she recommended. “Typically, we think of watering right along the top, but this way water is only put on temporarily. We actually need to get the water down to a depth of two feet. That is where the adequate soil moisture is required for root growth and so the tree can absorb nutrients.”

Requirements

Moisture needs can also vary depending upon the tree species, soil type and the amount of compaction. The trees also need moisture in an area that extends to the edge of the tree’s canopy, Allison noted.

Trees should be watered for 12 to 24 hours at each location and until the end of the line is reached. 

“Water them again in three to four weeks if the weather is still hot, and there has been no rainfall,” she added. “Watering frequency can also depend on the type of trees in the windbreak, if they are evergreen or deciduous, the size and age of the trees, whether the ground is shaded or open and the presence of cool season grasses, like brome.”

The windbreak setting can also be a factor, she continued. Producers should ask themselves questions, such as, is the windbreak exposed to a lot of wind, and is it next to a lawn or pivot?

Looking forward

“Trees can take a while to show drought stress,” Allison concluded. 

Some signs are subtle like thinning of the crown, fewer leaves and shorter new growth each year. 

“The previous droughts in 2001-02 and 2006-07 reduced the mass of the tree’s root system, which limits the amount of water and nutrients the tree can take in,” she explained. “This can make any age of tree susceptible to drought.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In February, Wyoming experienced below average temperatures, making it the 32nd coolest of 124 years, and above-average precipitation, as it was the 24th wettest of 124 years.

The U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) map from March 13 shows conditions have improved slightly in northeast Wyoming. 

However, abnormally dry conditions persist throughout all counties on the eastern boundary of the state, with the exception of Laramie County. 

Abnormally dry conditions are also present in Converse, Platte, Carbon, Sweetwater, Uinta and Lincoln counties. Additionally, some areas of Carbon and Sweetwater counties continue to experience moderate drought conditions.

Looking at neighboring states, drought intensity in Colorado’s southern corners has increased to extreme. Northeastern Montana and much of western North and South Dakota continue to experience moderate to severe drought. 

You can help inform the U.S. Drought Monitor by submitting conditions and impacts at droughtreporter.unl.edu/submitreport.

View the current USDM maps at weather.gov/riw/drought.

The snow water equivalent (SWE) throughout Wyoming ranges from 69 to 159 percent of normal according to the March 20 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL report. 

View the current SWE for your basin at wwa.colorado.edu/climatedashboard2.html.

Forecasts

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) eight- to 14-day forecast for March 28 to April 3, which was made March 20,  indicates a 40 to 50 percent probability of below normal temperatures throughout of the eastern two-thirds of Wyoming. 

Normal precipitation is forecasted for the entire state over the same timeframe. 

The forecast for April, which was made March 15, indicates equal chances of above, below or average temperatures for most of Wyoming. The precipitation forecast for the same timeframe is also for equal chances of above, below or average precipitation for much of the state. 

That said, if you draw a line from the northwest corner of the state to the southern corner of Niobrara County there is a 33 percent probability for above-average precipitation for the area north of that line. 

To view NOAA’s most recent forecasts visit and select a forecast at cpc.ncep.noaa.gov. 

Ag considerations

If you read last month’s “Connecting Ag to Climate” column, you might recall I mentioned that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Looking at current conditions and forecasts, the drought wheel continues to squeak in areas of the state.

As we move into April, keep a close eye on precipitation, which is key for forage production on native rangelands. Generally speaking, precipitation in April through May is a good indicator of forage production for cool-season dominated rangelands. For pastures with a mix of cool and warm-season grasses, precipitation in May is key.

Consider discussing the following questions with your team. 

How much forage carryover do we have, and how much are we willing to feed this year, if needed?

What is the status of soil moisture in your area? Monitor soil moisture throughout this spring to have some idea of potential forage or dryland crop production.

What is the precipitation forecast and its probability for April and beyond? What does this tell you about potential yield?

The above questions may help you start thinking through tough decisions, like whether it would be more economical to maintain, reduce or expand your herd or planted acres during this year’s growing season. Consider writing down “target” dates or conditions for making difficult decisions.

Featured resources

Explore the University of Wyoming’s bulletins about drought at wyoextension.org/publications. Then, search “drought.”

Remember to plan, monitor, know your alternatives and adapt as needed.

This article was written by UW Extension, WAFERx and USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub Regional Extension Program Coordinator Windy Kelley. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 307-766-2205. The column was reviewed by Wyoming Water Resources Data System Deputy Director Tony Bergantino and Justin Derner of USDA Agricultural Research Service. Dannelle Peck of USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub also reviewed the article.

“Drought is a tricky thing to talk about,” said National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) Program Assistant Program Director Chad McNutt. “If we’re an irrigator, drought is going to affect us differently than someone who is running dryland.”

McNutt discussed tools and resources available to producers for predicting drought conditions on their operation.

Outlooks

NOAA releases seasonal outlooks, both monthly and quarterly.

The outlooks give predictions for whether temperatures and precipitation will be above or below average.

“That doesn’t tell us magnitude. It just tells us the odds of either going above average or below average,” McNutt explained. “Nonetheless, these are what we use.”

McNutt noted that NOAA also releases a weekly Drought Monitor, which is combined with the seasonal outlooks to create drought outlooks.

“This is state-of-the-art when it comes to drought forecasting, and this is what we have to work with,” he said.

The different colors in the drought outlook predicts where drought development is likely, where it will likely persist and what areas may see improvement.

“In the brown are areas where we expect drought to persist, and the green colors are where we think drought development is likely. If we go to those lighter shades, that’s where we think improvement is going to happen,” McNutt continued.

Limitations

“Unfortunately, we live in an area of the country that doesn’t have a very strong signal with El Niño or La Niña,” said McNutt.

He noted that neither the 2011 flood or 2012 drought were predicted, even with a La Niña both years.

“In fact, there was some research done following those episodes on the forecast specifically, and they said, with the methodology and skill that we have with the latest science, we couldn’t have predicted either event,” McNutt continued.

He cautioned, “Even though we have these tools, like drought outlooks and seasonal outlooks, we really have to be careful how we use them.”

However, McNutt explained that the outlooks can still be useful to look at forecasts.

“I would look at shorter-term forecasts, rather than so much over the season, and then I would understand what current conditions look like on my operation,” he said.

Ground truth

“One of the interesting things about the Drought Monitor is it’s not a model,” commented McNutt.

While the seasonal outlooks are a model process, the Drought Monitor uses comprehensive sources for input.

“It takes into account a lot of data, but it also takes in a lot of user feedback from each state,” he continued. “One of the best things about this product is they look at a lot of variables, but they’re ground-truthing it with people on the ground.”

Each week, McNutt explained that there is a listserv where participants discuss what conditions look like in their area and provide input on how accurate the data is in describing the actual conditions.

He noted, “It’s kind of a convergence-of-evidence-type of approach where we have all of these variables, and then we’ve got people writing in, saying the variables we’re tracking aren’t showing drought or drought is worse than we’re depicting.”

Monitor basics

While used as a research tool for many years, the Drought Monitor first began being formally used in drought predictions in 1999.

“There was a drought in Washington, D.C. in 1998-99, and they said told researchers to get the system operational as quickly as possible,” McNutt commented.

The composite Drought Monitor map is released every Thursday morning, explained McNutt.

“We call it a composite map because it takes into account a lot of different indicators,” he said.

Both federal agencies and nonfederal participants, such as the National Weather Service, Farm Service Agency and Extension, contribute to the monitor.

One author per week works to compile all of the data and user input into the coming week’s map.

“They’re looking at the current week’s map, and they’re making adjustments based on where it’s rained or snowed, what shrink flows look like or what soil moisture looks like, what groundwater looks like,” concluded McNutt. “They actually produce the map, taking input from all over.”

McNutt spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..