PNW Ag Hit by Historic Drought

Drought Affecting Crops, Livestock in Pacific Northwest

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Drought has led to dry pastures near Benge, Washington. (Photo courtesy of TJ Buechner)

OMAHA (DTN) -- While some parts of the Midwest deal with too much rain this growing season, farmers in Washington state, and the Pacific Northwest Region as a whole, are struggling with historic drought and record heat.

Dry, hot weather is lowering crop yields, though it is also boosting protein levels because of a lack of moisture. Cattle producers are also facing challenges in finding enough grass and forages to feed their herds.

HISTORIC DROUGHT

Bryce Anderson, DTN senior ag meteorologist, said central and eastern Washington state have been dry for the better part of two straight years. The last time the state east of the Cascades was out of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, was late November 2013, he said.

Anderson said the drought was "turbo-charged in June 2015 with outrageous heat. The Office of Washington State Climatologist reported mean June temperatures ranked as the warmest on record for nearly the entire state. June also ranked as the driest or second-driest for every station.

"The blistering June records included numerous readings of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, topped by Walla Walla reaching 113 degrees on June 28, which broke a daily record for the station but is also the warmest June temperature on record anywhere in the state," Anderson said.

Roy Dube, who raises wheat, barley and dry peas near Rosilia in eastern Washington's famed Palouse region, said it has been many years since his home area has been this dry.

"This is historic as we usually produce crops pretty consistently," Dube told DTN. "The last time we had a drought like this was when I was in college in 1977."

His area usually receives about 18 inches of moisture a year. This year he estimates about 8 inches have fallen so far.

Dube said dry conditions began last fall as farmers seeded winter wheat, followed by little winter moisture. Rains began in March, though not enough to replenish soil moisture, and stopped completely in May. Some areas of the region have had no rain since then.

"We didn't get anything at all in June, and then recently we did get about a quarter of an inch, but the damage is already done," he said.

The region has seen several days warmer than 100 degrees in June, a fairly rare happening in the Pacific Northwest, with many days with highs 25 degrees warmer than normal, he said.

Dube feels his winter wheat crop yields could be close to average, but his spring seed crops will see lower yields due to the lack of moisture. Anything seeded later in the spring will be worse off than earlier-seeded crops, he said.

Eric Zakarison raises winter and spring wheat, as well as barley, peas and oats on about 1,300 acres around Pullman. Zakarison was feeling pretty good about his crops in early June, but the heat wave has caught up with his operation. The last few weeks have been over 90 degrees every day.

"It's really baked us out," he said.

His winter wheat, with a deeper root system, has weathered the situation and the crop has pretty much all turned brown and will be ready to be harvested in the coming days.

"The spring crops got hurt more by the dry weather, though," Zakarison said. "We got rain in May, but we didn't get the June rains like we normally would. That kind of clipped us."

With his spring wheat, a potential crop of 60-65 bushels per acre has probably now been cut back to closer to 55 bushels. His pea crop could have been cut in half, he said.

PROTEIN LEVELS HIGHER

Because of the dry growing conditions, the soft white wheat crop could have higher protein levels. This would present issues with the wheat's end users who want soft white wheat with lower protein levels for flour used in products such as crackers, sponge cakes, etc.

Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers in Ritzville, agreed that protein in soft white wheat could be above the normal 10% to 10.5% levels.

"Harvest is just beginning so we really don't know what protein levels are going to be yet but there have been some reports of lower protein wheat and higher protein," Hennings said.

Hennings said 90% of the state's soft white wheat is exported, much to the Philippines and Japan. Exporters are becoming concerned they'll need to bring in enough lower-protein soft white wheat from other areas to blend with PNW wheat to meet the levels customers want.

If the drought continues into August and September, this dryness could have an effect on fall seeding for winter wheat, Hennings said. Seeding usually occurs in the state as early as August through November. Continued dry conditions could force wheat farmers to delay their seeding or plant into soil with little to no moisture.

CATTLEMEN ALSO FEEL HEAT

In central Washington, Larry Olberding Jr. is a cattle rancher with a cow/calf herd grazing on irrigated pastures and dryland rangeland near Connell. His area, which receives about 8 inches of moisture a year, has been dry for a few years now and he figures they have only gotten 3 inches of moisture so far this year.

"When you start up with only 8 inches, only getting a couple inches really gets tough," Olberding told DTN.

He said the dryness and limited grazing has forced him to cut back on his cattle numbers some. He also has been stockpiling some grass, hoping to make it last as long as he can if there is no rain.

The problem, however, is there are two months of the grazing season left and he is going through his feed quicker than anticipated, he said.

"I really don't want to overgraze (pastures), as this is something which takes years to fix," he said. "We will have some residues to graze when the corn is harvested, and we also have some irrigated alfalfa, which could be grazed late in the season."

The drought could force him to wean calves around Labor Day instead of the normal October/November period. Cows lose condition in drought conditions while attempting to support a calf, he said.

"Things in the cattle business would be a lot tougher with lower cattle prices," Olberding said. "At least now you can shrink your cattle numbers and the total amount of the check could still be higher."

DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton contributed to this article.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn