Southwest U.S. Plains drought hangs tough; El Niño not helping

by Drew Lerner
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KANSAS CITY — Drought in the southwestern U.S. Plains continues to hang on, despite a short-term period of needed moisture at the end of 2014. Portions of the Texas Panhandle, western Oklahoma and neighboring areas of north-central Texas are in a worse drought now than at this time last year. It is a small region, but right in the heart of hard red winter wheat country. Unirrigated crop production potentials will be at risk in just a few more weeks if a significant change does not evolve prior to the end of winter.

Drought that was also serious in western Kansas, southeastern Colorado and western Nebraska last year at this time has been eased due to some timely rain and snow events in recent weeks. However, dryness in the southwestern wheat production region is as serious as that in California, although impacting an area about one-fifth the size of the far western U.S. drought. Nevertheless, the dryness is a concern. Winter crops are dormant or semi-dormant and oblivious to the moisture shortage, but if they awake from dormancy without a serious improvement in topsoil moisture there is going to be some immediate stress. The region irrigates much of the wheat, but that which is not irrigated will be vulnerable to a production cut in March if the crop fails to have significant moisture by the time seasonal warming begins.

This year’s winter weather pattern was supposed to help ease dryness in the southwestern Plains. An 18-year cycle pattern that was advertised to bring active weather out of the southwestern United States into the Midwest has failed to produce significant rain until after storm systems get past the southern Plains. Much of the lower and eastern Midwest, Delta and southeastern states have been plenty wet, but there has not been enough moisture in the southwestern Plains to fix dryness.

El Niño also was expected to evolve in 2014-15 and it came darn close, but it failed to officially evolve. El Niño-like conditions were prevalent, and it was thought that enough presence of El Niño would enhance the 18-cycle flow. However, a stronger-than-expected northern branch of the jet stream over North America diminished the atmospheric energy available for southwestern U.S. storm development, and that in conjunction with waning El Niño like conditions has resulted in restricted precipitation.

The most recent 30-day period generated above average precipitation in West Texas cotton areas (south of the Texas Panhandle) and in a broad region from eastern Colorado and much of Kansas through South Dakota to Montana. But areas from the Texas Panhandle through much of western and northern Oklahoma to south-central and southeastern Kansas were still left with less than half of normal precipitation. Some areas in southeastern parts of the Texas Panhandle reported less than 25% of normal precipitation in the past 30 days.

The 30-day precipitation anomaly from the Texas Panhandle becomes more prominent in the 60-day period ended Jan. 13 with a broader region reporting less than half of normal precipitation. The most interesting statistic of all is the 90-day per cent of normal rainfall chart that clearly shows a massive area of less-than-normal precipitation encompassing the majority of the Great Plains, the western two-thirds of the Corn Belt and a part of the Delta. None of the Midwest is running dry from an absolute soil moisture perspective, but portions of the Plains definitely need greater precipitation to lift soil moisture more favorably for future wheat development.

El Niño-like conditions will play a minor role in weather over the next few weeks. There is still some potential that it will strengthen once again in late February or March, but that will not help the environment for the balance of January and February. The best time of the year to bolster soil moisture for future crop use (especially in a dry year) is during the winter when evaporation rates are low and much of the precipitation that falls can stay in the ground for a while. The poor performance of weather systems in recent weeks has certainly increased pressure on late winter and early spring precipitation.

Weather patterns are expected to change enough in the next few weeks to help bring a few storms out of the southwestern United States and into the heart of the lower Midwest via the southern U.S. hard red winter wheat region. The predicted change is possible in early February and may be more likely in March and April — a critical time for crop development.

The ongoing dryness issues in the southwestern Plains are not huge, but they do contribute to some other problems that have occurred around the world this past autumn and winter. Bitter cold in U.S. Midwest soft wheat areas last autumn arrived without all of the wheat being planted and with some of the crop not emerged or well established. As a result of that anomalous weather, production will be reduced in the Midwest.

Russia, Ukraine suffer from dry season

In the meantime, Russia and Ukraine suffered from a very dry autumn season that left its wheat crop poorly established. That poor establishment was then followed by some bouts of bitter cold without adequate snow on the ground, resulting in more losses to world wheat production potentials.

China and India have not reported any serious adversity in recent weeks. Both countries are suspected of having good production potential in 2015. Sufficient soil moisture and some well-timed rainfall during the autumn planting and establishment season led most crops into favorable establishment.

Australia, South Africa and Brazil each had their share of production problems this year, and some of that production loss along with problems in the United States leaves a bullish tone for the marketplace because of suspected production declines. North Africa wheat and Europe’s wheat have seen some trying moments of weather, but recent conditions were rated mostly favorably. Argentina’s wheat crop was of decent size and quality, as well.

The next few weeks will be very important for the wheat market — at least from a hard red winter wheat production perspective, and any continuation of poor precipitation leading up to spring could have a negative impact on production.

World Weather, Inc. expects some relief from dryness in the southwestern Plains this spring, but it will come to the region only after a few more frustrating weeks of limited precipitation.

South America crop update

In the meantime, Central Argentina has become excessively wet in the past few weeks while portions of northeastern Brazil and a few small production regions in southwestern Argentina trended much drier. The contrast in weather and crop conditions has been dramatic for the past two weeks and debate over 2015 summer crop production has been deeply discussed. The market trade seems to have given up trying to kill crops in the two nations.

Dryness in northeastern Brazil is a much larger threat to coffee and some sugarcane production areas than to corn or soybeans. The region only contributes a small amount of corn and soybeans with the exception of Minas Gerais, where 12% of the corn crop is produced. The bulk of other production areas in Brazil have dried out recently, but the timeliness of rain and presence of good subsoil moisture has helped to induce a good-sized crop that may pressure corn and soybean prices lower in time.

Argentina’s excessive moisture situation has stopped short of being a serious threat to 2015 production. Sufficient drying time over the next two weeks will support crop improvements and that will translate to better production potentials.
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