OMAHA (DTN) -- Southern Plains farmers don't need a crystal ball to tell them what their biggest challenge will be during the upcoming forage-growing season. Every year, it boils down to the same thing: moisture.
"Moisture, or lack thereof, is always our biggest struggle it seems like," Jay Leeper, who farms near Alva, Oklahoma, told DTN.
As grass and alfalfa begin to green up and grow in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, the forage outlook will hinge on how much rain falls in the historically wetter months of April and May. With an extremely dry winter in the region this year, the margin for error for forage production in 2018 will be fairly small if the dryness continues.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said the Southern Plains is seeing historically dry conditions. Since last fall, the region has been even drier than during the historic drought year of 2011.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the worst of the drought (category 3 - extreme drought) is present from central Kansas and extends south through western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and into eastern New Mexico. Category 4 (exceptional drought) is found in northwestern Oklahoma and in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
Some areas of the region went more than 130 days without any form of moisture this winter. April and May will be crucial for better moisture conditions in the region this spring, because these months are the wettest months climatologically, Anderson said.
"Amarillo, for example, has an average total precipitation of 1.4 inches of moisture in April and 2.8 inches in May," Anderson said. "If that doesn't happen, then the impacts of dryness will ramp up exponentially."
Anderson said the forecast for the area for the next two weeks does not look very good for chances of moisture. A big concern is the tendency of drought to feed on itself. "Dry begets dry," he said.
DRY IN NORTHWEST OKLAHOMA
Leeper's home area of northwestern Oklahoma is in category 4 -- exceptional drought, according to the Drought Monitor map. Normally, the region can bank on some moisture during the winter in the form of rains and some snow, but this has not been the case this winter, Leeper said.
"We got like two-tenths (of an inch) the other night, but before that, it was anywhere from 135 to 140 days without any moisture," he said. Because of some good moisture early in the fall, he said he believes his subsoil does have some moisture, but probably not much. The topsoil, on the other hand, is extremely dry.
Leeper said he is hopeful that spring rains will help his forages get off to a decent start. He grows alfalfa as well as some oats for hay for his flock of sheep in both Woods and Alfalfa counties.
Leeper said the growing season in 2017 was fairly average with average forage yields. Normally, he can get five cuttings of alfalfa if there is enough moisture for the crop to grow.
The concern this growing season is if spring rains don't come, forage yields will be reduced considerably, and the number of cuttings could be trimmed. Currently, his alfalfa is breaking dormancy and trying to grow, he said.
"We always feed some and sell the rest," he said. "If it's that dry, we won't have to buy hay, but we also won't have much to sell either."
Another concern for Southern Plains alfalfa growers this growing season could be increased issues with pests in association with the dry field conditions. Alfalfa weevils and aphids always seem to be much worse in dry years, Leeper said.
Laura Goodman, Oklahoma State University Extension range specialist, said the good news for the state's rangeland is the drought has only been present since last October in much of western Oklahoma. Almost all of the state's native grasses and some introduced forages, such as Bermuda grass, Old World bluestem and weeping lovegrass, are dormant and unable to use what rain does fall over the winter months.
"I have seen some native pastures that were grazed heavily this winter because the wheat just wasn't growing, and those pastures may take longer to recover," Goodman said.
This situation will all change as the grass comes out of dormancy and needs moisture to grow. Rain in May and June is critical for warm-season forage grass in the state, she said.
TEXAS PANHANDLE DROUGHT
Farther south, the current drought situation in the Texas Panhandle is and will continue affecting forage production, according to Jourdan Bell, agronomist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center located in Amarillo. The dryness has affected both native range and annual forage production in the region where forage is critical for area feedlots and dairies.
"Heavy 2017 rainfall resulted in good production, but as the drought persists, fire dangers increase across the region," Bell told DTN.
The National Weather Service (NWS) in Amarillo issued a critical fire weather warning on Wednesday, March 21, for most of both panhandles from Friday, March 23, to Sunday, March 25. The greatest chance for critical fire weather is Friday and Sunday across the western panhandles, NWS reported.
Bell said winter wheat is normally an important component of many farmers' forage plan.
High Plains producers plant wheat for grazing earlier than is recommended for grain production, she said. Early fall-planted wheat produced excellent fall forage with early fall rains, but excessive growth quickly depleted soil moisture profiles. Because of this, the forage didn't recover from the fall grazing.
The dryness and the fall grazing has resulted in poor wheat pasture conditions currently, and many farmers have had to reduce stocking rates and/or pull cattle off of the wheat much earlier than planned, Bell said.
Bell reported that some irrigated wheat acres are in good condition, but many producers are not irrigating winter wheat due to low wheat prices. In addition, silage production is very important to the region's feedlots and dairies, and many producers have started to pre-irrigate these fields as a result of the drought, she said.
As far as rangeland in the Texas Panhandle, Bell said that currently the region has sufficient grass where pastures have not been overgrazed in cow/calf systems.
"There is always the concern about a reduction in cow herd number during a drought, but at this time, I think this may be hard to project," she said. "In the drought of 2011 and 2012, we saw cow herds begin to decline in 2012, but that was after two extended years of drought."
There may be a reduction in herd size moving into the fall of 2018, but Bell is hoping for late-spring and summer precipitation so these decisions will not have to be made.
ONE BRIGHT SPOT
Not all of the Southern Plains is in a drought situation.
Vanessa Corriher-Olson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension forage specialist based at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Overton in east Texas, said the only part of the Lone Star State not in drought designation is east Texas. Here, forages are in really good shape, she said.
"For the eastern part of the state, we are in great condition at this point, and in much better condition than was originally predicted earlier this year," Corriher-Olson said.
Annual concerns for forage production in Corriher-Olson's region of the state include typical issues such as weather, fertilizer prices, weeds and pests. Insects that could have an effect on forages in eastern Texas include grasshoppers, fall armyworms and Bermuda grass stem maggots, she said.
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