The Norman Transcript

January 13, 2013

Examining drought by the Numbers

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The title of the 1964 Bob Dylan album “The Times They Are a-Changin'” could certainly become the slogan of farming and ranching in Oklahoma today.

Beginning in the fall of 2010, exceptional drought conditions shocked our state and ag producers are reeling as they try to manage through it.

Since 1895, drought consistently reared its ugly head in Oklahoma in a very consistent pattern. It came and it went, but it has always been a possibility. According to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, our state has witnessed a pattern of very wet and very dry years running in 10-year intervals on average. The anomaly to this trend is that from the early 1980's we have been very wet throwing the average 10-year cycle off a bit. We are now experiencing dryer than normal conditions and ag producers are facing the consequences.

Cleveland County also felt the effects of the 2-year drought more than some residents may have expected. In fact, the county endured a devastating wildfire and Lake Thunderbird is now low enough that some municipalities are bracing for potential water conservation measures in the future. Coupled with this, our pastures and crop fields are seriously lacking in both topsoil and subsoil moisture causing limited production at best in many areas.

While the lack of water can be felt in our region now more than ever, the financial impacts of our ongoing drought can be felt coast to coast. Drought loss estimates for 2012 were released at the Governor's Water Conference and the numbers are staggering. Drought losses for Oklahoma during 2012 totaled $426,125,520 which while high, pales in comparison to our 2011 total loss of 1.6 billion.

Oklahoma farmers and ranchers took the brunt of the losses with an estimated $239,299,520 in cropland and $157,109,000 in livestock losses. Coupled with this, municipal costs incurred due to drought stressed landscapes or wildfires totaled $27,299,000. In some areas of the state ravaged by fire, city and rural fire departments sustained a portion of these municipal and property losses as well.

While 2012 only incurred _ of the overall loss our state endured during 2011, this trend is still likely to continue in the future. One factor that made 2011 vastly different from 2012 was that most of the livestock liquidations occurred in 2011 as many beef producers sold entire cow herds. These lower stocking rates in some parts of the state put less stress on drought-stricken pasture and rangeland during 2012. In addition, the winter of 2011/2012 eased the pain of an otherwise devastating year and provided wheat pasture grazing and a decent wheat harvest.

As I mentioned, the drought really began in the fall of 2010 and was both intense and long-lasting through the ensuing year. The real difference in these two years was shown in both their intensity and duration. Thus in comparison, 2012 was more of what some might call a “flash” drought where it came more suddenly than it did in 2011. The brunt of the heat and dry conditions occurred after wheat harvest during 2012 and while short, it was still extreme. Under these dry summer conditions, our double crop, warm-season species like corn, soybeans, cotton and milo were greatly affected.

Cotton production endured its second year of exceptional drought and crop failures following the banner cotton production year of 2010. This was caused by extreme heat, low rainfall and limited to no irrigation availability in areas around Lake Altus-Lugert. Many farmers in this part of Oklahoma are considering alternatives to cotton if the drought cycle continues like many predict.

While there was a break between those two years, with a wet, mild 2011 winter, we have not seen that definitive break in dry weather during the winter of 2012 yet. Wheat is poor throughout much of the state and some reports are that entire fields are dead or dying as we speak.

Recent showers may have provided a small crutch for now, but with submoisture limited or non-existent in some areas, wheat in some areas is hanging on by a thread. Due to these factors, many cattle producers planning to run stockers on wheat pasture either chose not to buy in the first place or have already sold out.

2 years and over 2 billion dollars in loss later, the question for Ag producers remains; where do we go from here? The ripple effect of these conditions causes changes both good and bad. It has caused some producers to tighten their belts and manage range and pastureland more efficiently. This will most certainly provide healthier grazing in the future as these grasses, while stressed by drought, are finally being managed properly.

On the other hand, these conditions may cause shortages in cattle numbers across the board and the industry may have difficulties keeping up with demands. In addition, as farmers anticipate continued drought (which history tells has cyclical tendencies), varying inputs and purchases may change as potential losses are mitigated. These ripples resonate across the country and ultimately the globe and affect consumer prices and spending.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. We cannot manage our farms and ranches like we have over the last 30 years. We must adapt to these trying times of drought and make good management decisions.

For local news and more, subscribe to The Norman Transcript Smart Edition, or our print edition.