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The Dry Summer: An Agricultural Drought

The last 12 months have been extremely trying for the farmers and ranchers of our state, Missouri.  See, we have dealt with severe agricultural drought.  Below-average precipitation coupled with long-term averages of high temperatures has led to large areas of extreme drought.  Ultimately this has led to the decline of soil moisture and live water shortage.  Agricultural impacts include a greatly diminished crop production as well as livestock production.  

We are what is considered to be a combo farm and ranch, meaning we input crop production and raise beef cattle.  Drought indices have been fairly deceiving over the course of the past year because the precipitation deficits have been so spotty by county.  The U.S. drought monitor does not take into account the ground water levels, which are extremely low at this time.  Essentially, this means there is no water to generate into the atmosphere to continue to create a rainy weather pattern.  Parts of the west and midwest have unfortunately been caught in this weather patter the past 3 going on 4 years.  The true economic impact of current drought conditions has just barely been seen.  

What is an agricultural drought? 

An agricultural drought is a prolonged period of time when there is not enough water to meet the demands of agriculture. This can lead to crop failures, livestock deaths, and economic losses. Agricultural droughts can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • A decrease in precipitation
  • An increase in evaporation
  • A change in the timing of precipitation
  • A change in the distribution of precipitation

Agricultural droughts can have a significant impact on the economy and create food insecurity.

Beef cattle are significantly impacted during agricultural droughts, as these droughts often result in reduced forage and water availability, making it challenging to sustain livestock. Here are some of the key ways cattle are affected:

  • Lack of Forage: Drought conditions lead to a shortage of grass and other forage that cattle rely on for their diet. Pastures dry up, and the nutritional quality of available forage can decline, making it difficult to meet the dietary needs of cattle.
  • Reduced Weight Gain: With limited access to high-quality forage, cattle may experience reduced weight gain or even weight loss. This can have economic implications for cattle ranchers who rely on selling cattle for meat or impact future fertility in cattle.  
  • Dehydration: Drought conditions often lead to a shortage of water sources. Cattle require adequate water for drinking and cooling themselves, especially during hot and dry periods.  Surface water dries up leaving cattle nowhere to cool.
  • Stress and Health Issues: Cattle exposed to prolonged drought conditions can experience stress, which can make them more susceptible to diseases and health issues. Nutritional deficiencies can also lead to health problems.
  • Financial Loss: Cattle ranchers may incur financial losses due to decreased productivity, increased  and supplemental feed costs and in cases of severe agricultural drought, death. 
  • Forced Sales: In severe droughts, cattle ranchers may be forced to sell off their livestock earlier than planned, sometimes at lower prices, in order to reduce the financial burden of keeping cattle with limited forage and water resources.
  • Long-Term Impact: The impacts of agricultural drought on cattle can extend beyond the drought period. Cattle may take time to recover in terms of weight gain and overall health even after conditions improve. 

How do we handle devastating droughts? 

To mitigate the impact of agricultural drought on cattle, ranchers often take several measures:

  • Supplementary Feeding: Providing supplementary feed to cattle to compensate for the reduced forage availability.
  • Water Management: Ensuring that cattle have access to clean and sufficient water sources. This may involve hauling water to the pasture or creating additional water sources when live water is not available. 
  • Reducing Herd Size: In severe cases, cattle ranchers may reduce their herd size by selling beef cattle due to lack of forage and water resources.
  • Health Management: Monitoring the health of cattle closely to reduce health issues that may arise due to drought-related stress.
  • Financial Planning: Developing financial strategies to cope with the economic impact of drought, including accessing government assistance programs and cattle dispersal sales.

How does drought impact crop production? 

Drought can have a significant impact on the growing season for crops, as well as trees. Its effects are generally negative, as it leads to various challenges that hinder normal growth

Here’s how drought affects the growing season:

  • Reduced Water Availability: The most direct impact of drought is a shortage of water in the soil. Adequate soil moisture is essential for the germination of seeds and the growth of plants. Drought reduces the amount of moisture available to plants, making it harder for them to establish root systems and grow.
  • Stunted Growth: Drought conditions can result in stunted growth for many plants. When water is scarce, plants often prioritize essential functions such as maintaining root health and preserving existing growth, rather than putting energy into new growth. This can lead to smaller plants and reduced crop yields.
  • Delayed Planting: Farmers may delay planting their crops if they anticipate a drought, as they want to ensure that there’s enough moisture in the soil for seeds to germinate. This can shorten the growing season, reducing the time available for crops to mature.
  • Shorter Growing Season: Drought can lead to a shorter growing season because plants may prematurely go into survival mode, leading to early flowering and fruiting. This can result in smaller yields and lower-quality produce.
  • Lower Crop Yields: The most significant impact of drought on the growing season is the reduction in crop yields. Insufficient water can lead to poor crop development, smaller fruits or grains, and sometimes crop failure. This can have serious economic consequences for farmers and affect food availability.
  • Increased Pests and Diseases: Drought-stressed plants are often more susceptible to pests and diseases. Reduced plant vigor makes them easier targets for harmful organisms, further compromising crop health and yields.
  • Changes in Plant Composition: Drought can alter the chemical composition of plants. In some cases, this can lead to lower nutritional value in crops, which can affect the quality of food and forage for animals.
  • Wilted and Yellowing Plants: Drought-stressed plants may exhibit wilting, curling leaves, and yellowing. These are signs of water stress and indicate that the plant is not receiving enough moisture to support its growth.
  • Impact on Trees: Drought can lead to stress in trees, causing leaves to drop prematurely, weakened root systems, and increased vulnerability to pests and diseases. Prolonged drought can even lead to tree mortality.
  • Soil Degradation: Repeated droughts can degrade soil quality by reducing organic matter and nutrient content. This can have long-term impacts on future growing seasons.

To mitigate the impact of drought on the growing season, farmers utilize drought resistant crop varieties and when possible irrigation from nearby rivers and streams.  Many farmers also utilize no-till farming technology as not to deeper damage the soil profile.  In our case, we do not have the ability to irrigate, therefore the ground moisture we have is what we get.  We are a no-till operation in an effort to mitigate soil water deficits in they years of extreme drought.  The residue left behind after harvest helps go retain the soil moisture that is present, this helps the overall soil water-holding capacity when needed.  

How is a drought tracked?

The U.S. Drought Monitor is a systematic and ongoing assessment of drought conditions across the United States. It is a collaborative effort among several federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The primary purpose of the U.S. Drought Monitor is to provide timely and accurate information about drought conditions to policymakers, government agencies, water resource managers, researchers, and the public. It plays a crucial role in drought monitoring and mitigation by:

  1. Mapping Drought Conditions: The U.S. Drought Monitor produces maps that categorize areas across the country based on the severity of drought conditions. These categories range from “Abnormally Dry” to “Exceptional Drought.” The maps are updated weekly and made available to the public.
  2. Providing Objective Data: The assessment of drought conditions in the U.S. Drought Monitor is based on a combination of quantitative data (such as precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, and streamflow) and qualitative information from local experts and observers. This ensures a comprehensive and objective evaluation of drought.
  3. Supporting Decision-Making: The information provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor helps federal and state agencies, water resource managers, and local officials make informed decisions related to water use, agricultural practices, disaster preparedness, and drought response.
  4. Drought Awareness: The U.S. Drought Monitor raises awareness among the public and encourages water conservation and responsible water use during periods of drought. It also helps communities prepare for and respond to long term drought impacts.
  5. Long-Term Planning: By tracking and documenting drought conditions over time, the U.S. Drought Monitor supports long-term planning for water resources, agriculture communities that are vulnerable to drought

Click here to check out the drought monitor

How does a drought begin?

Decreased winter precipitation often refers to a reduction in the amount of snowfall, rainfall, or other forms of moisture that typically occur during the winter season.   This decrease in winter precipitation can have various effects on the environment, water resources, agriculture, and communities. Here are some of the potential impacts:

  1. Water Resources: Reduced winter precipitation can lead to lower snowpack levels in mountainous regions, which serve as natural reservoirs. This can result in decreased water availability for drinking water supplies, irrigation, and hydropower generation during the spring and summer months.
  2. Drought Conditions: Decreased winter precipitation can contribute to drought conditions, both in the short term and over an extended period. Drier winter seasons can reduce soil moisture levels and negatively affect water sources, leading to agricultural drought, hydrological drought, and potential water shortages.
  3. Agriculture: Winter precipitation plays a crucial role in replenishing soil moisture and maintaining groundwater levels. Reduced winter precipitation can lead to soil dryness and make it challenging for crops to establish healthy root systems, potentially impacting crop yields in the coming growing season.
  4. Ecosystems: Winter precipitation is important for the health of natural ecosystems. Reduced snowfall can affect the water supply for plants and wildlife, potentially leading to habitat changes and stress on local flora and fauna.
  5. Wildfire Risk: In some cases, decreased winter precipitation can contribute to higher wildfire risk during the subsequent dry season. Reduced moisture levels in vegetation can make it more susceptible to ignition.
  6. Energy Resources: Hydropower generation, which relies on water availability, may be impacted by reduced winter precipitation. In regions where water is used for energy. decreased precipitation can affect energy consumption patterns.

Above our images of our soybeans throughout most of the growing season. While it was dry all spring and summer, we were fortunate to get one rain in July. It quite literally saved our soybean crop!

While not always true, one of the biggest indicators for the start of a long-term dry season or drought is ultimately a dry winter.  The decrease in winter precipitation, whether it be snow or rain, often flows into the other seasons,  Certain weather patterns, such as an El Niño typically indicate drier and hotter crop production seasons.  This puts farmers and ranchers at a higher risk for crop and livestock failure.  While many think climate change is ultimately to blame, if you research weather patterns over the course of the NOAA, trends appear to be cyclical in nature.  

The effects of drought can be seen far and wide locally.  Farmers and ranchers are truly hurting.  Many cattle producers have had to cut back their numbers or worse, disperse their herds simply because they have run out of grass and water.  We have had to cut back on the number of cattle we typically retain because there is just not enough forage to sustain cattle to their optimal nutritional levels.  Many pastures have just not had any chance to grow or re-grow grass suitable for cattle diets.  What may look like an adequate amount grass is more likely a woody, stalky weed with little to no nutritional value to cattle.  

As far as crop ground goes, while we have a soybean harvest, it is greatly diminished.  There was no rain in the early stages of plant propagation.  The root systems are not quite as developed as we would like making it difficult to predict what type of yield we will see.  Living in South Central Missouri, our growing season is typically a month or so behind the traditional soybean rush yield.  We also use a more drought resistant soybean variation and in years like this, we are grateful to have that technology.  

While we don’t know when this weather pattern will break or how long term the effects of the drought may be, we have to keep pushing forward and have the faith that this weather pattern will break and we will see favorable conditions again.  We will continue to supplement our cattle herd as needed to ensure proper nutrition and pray the drought ends this winter.  

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