Drought in winter


LUSK – As dust kicks up behind trucks driving down a dirt road and the wind picks it up to create a small dust devil, a local rancher looks out and comments that he can’t remember a good summer that followed a winter this dry in November. 

After a cold but mostly dry winter of 2019-20, followed by a summer with little rain and higher than average temperatures, Niobrara county is facing a drought in winter. Early snows in September and October offered some hope that while the snow would be a hassle, it brought much needed moisture. 

Ranchers with livestock to winter over didn’t enjoy the prospect of feeding hay for the seven months but if it brought with it the chance to have decent grass next summer they would take it. Now they find themselves feeding hay without snow onto ground because so much of their pasture is burned up from high temperatures this summer and not enough moisture for fall growth.

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System website, Niobrara County falls in D2-D3 category. This is severe to extreme drought. Categorized with crop and pasture loss, widespread water shortages and possible restrictions imposed.

While levels have not yet reached those seen in 2003 and 2005, graphs show Wyoming is headed for the worst drought it has seen since 2014. For many cattlemen this means less feed and forcing to sell cattle at a time when prices are already low thanks to the impacts of COVID-19 and market fluctuations. The availability of hay has already shown has hay prices continue to climb and finding hay in the area becomes more and more difficult. Many ranches are trucking in hay from as far away at 300 miles.

The Quarterly Climate Impacts and Outlook issued by NOAA and NIDIS jointly for the Western United States for the fourth quarter predicts lower than average precipitation and higher than average temperatures for October through December. This report states, “This precipitation pattern going into winter is common during La Niña years and prediction tools used to generate the CPC outlooks are producing these patterns due to the La Nina conditions that are present which developed in August.”

This comes on top of a period during the 2019-2020 winter of snow drought. Snow drought is defined as either a period of little to no snow fall or a period when snow fall was average but higher temperatures earlier in the year resulted in faster than normal melting of the snow pack and earlier rain leading to less moisture available into late spring and early summer.

Niobrara County currently sits at 63.33% of normal precipitation. According to NOAA predictive tools, they would need to receive over two inches of precipitation in the next month to begin drought recovery and longer term need to continue to receive that level. At a time of year when precipitation comes in the form of snow, and snow inches only equate to tenths of an inch of precipitation, that is a lot of snow over the entire winter to begin to recover.

Based on predicted precipitation, Niobrara county will not come anywhere near this need. Temperatures will remain unseasonably warm with precipitation chances at only around 50% for the next 2-3 weeks as a whole. 

For now, many ranchers would simply take enough snow to knock the dust down. Dry, dusty conditions present additional health threats to sheep and cattle in the form of dust pneumonia. If conditions don’t begin to improve the longer term prospects for both cattle ranchers and crop farmers continues to look harder and harder.

Drought planning resources and tools can be found on the NIDIS website at https://www.drought.gov/drought/data-maps-tools.


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