Farmers in the Plains Are in 'Dire Straits' Due to Drought, Wildfire Conditions

May 9, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

A farm field is dusty and dry, with dirt flying up into the air in front of a blue sky.
More than 80% of the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma region is experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions. Recent rains have helped ease back the dryness, but aren't enough to eliminate the drought conditions farmers and ranchers are facing this season. (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Randy Uhrmacher is in his tractor, planting corn and soybeans in central Nebraska. But it’s hard to see his work. The soil is so dry that clouds of dust hang in the air as he drives through his fields.

“Not sure how I’m supposed to see what I’m doing tonight,” Uhrmacher said on a recent night of planting.

Even turning on the windshield wipers didn’t help him see through the dust storm. If he didn’t use soil conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover crops, he said his fields could look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

It’s the driest spring Uhrmacher can remember in his 38 years of farming.

Drought is a challenge many farmers and ranchers are facing in the middle of the country.

More than 80% of the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma region is at least abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s most recent data. And more than half of the area is severely dry.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the center, said the harsh conditions follow an extremely dry winter in much of the Plains. A winter without much precipitation wasn’t surprising. The colder La Niña weather pattern is playing out in the Pacific Ocean this year, which often brings below-average precipitation levels to the United States.

But Fuchs said the dryness has exceeded expectations.

“We’re currently seeing a tremendous amount of drought,” he said. “And it’s getting to be more intense from South Dakota, down into Nebraska, Kansas and all the way into Texas.”

Recent rainfall in the region has toned down some of the alarm bells, but Fuchs said the showers still haven’t eliminated the drought conditions that have been building since October.

“It’s been a welcome relief to farmers and has paid back some of the precipitation deficits in the region,” he said. “It will help ease dryness in some areas, but long term projections are showing that the drought is going to continue having a foothold through the summer.”

Many farmers said they’ve been worried their crops won’t have enough moisture to break above the ground.

That concern pushed Uhrmacher to do something he’d never done before: turn on his irrigation pivots to pump water through the soil before planting. He said he felt it was his only option to get moisture into the ground. He also increased his crop insurance policy to get more coverage in case crops on his non-irrigated land wilt.

“It just depends on Mother Nature from here,” Uhrmacher said. “We’re doing the best we can, but it can only be a good year if it starts raining and we get normal rains or above-normal rains for the rest of the year.”

Strong winds are also working against farmers this year. Oklahoma saw its windiest April since at least 1994. Wind speeds have also been above average in Nebraska and Kansas.

NSP Road 702 Fire Drone Video. Fire burning a prairie with smoke rising up.
Dry conditions and high winds contributed to the 702 wildfire, which burned more than 43,582 acres across southwest Nebraska in late April, according to state estimates. It scorched grassland and hay that ranchers rely on to feed their cattle. (Image courtesy Nebraska State Patrol)

The high winds and a dry prairie have been the perfect kindling for wildfires. Steve Rice is an alfalfa farmer but has been busy as a volunteer firefighter in southwestern Nebraska. He remembers driving up to a house in late April on a road sandwiched between hundreds of burning hay bales.

“There’s a wall of fire on each side,” he said. “And we sat there in the ash, in the smoke, in the wind and everything for three hours and tried to protect the house. We did it, we saved it, but he lost all of his hay bales and feed.”

Wildfires have burned up hay and thousands of acres of grassland that ranchers rely on to feed their cattle. In response, Rice has been organizing hay donations and transporting the bales to ranchers who need help.

A man in jeans, a gray hoodie and a baseball cap stands in a shed that's packed with hay bales.
Steve Rice is an alfalfa farmer and ships his product to 27 states. He's helped ranchers feed their livestock before. When wildfires hit Paradise, Kansas he took about eight semi-truck loads of hay donations to the affected cattlemen. "And now I'm afraid our neighbors need some help," he said. "So we're trying to do it here at home." (Photo by Will Bauer, Nebraska Public Media News)

“They lost their pasture ground, they lost their bales in the yards and in the ranches … all of it is gone, it’s hard to understand that,” he said. “Those farmers, they lost their entire inventory of feed. And it doesn't need to just be replenished for a week, it needs to be replenished for months.”

The drought means there’s not much hay and grassland, even for areas that haven’t seen wildfires. Some ranchers are considering selling off cattle because they’re worried about feeding them.

It’s reminding some farmers and ranchers of the last big drought in 2012, when farmers recorded more than $35 billion in crop losses. But Fuchs said there are some key differences between this year’s conditions and 2012.

The 2012 drought started developing from the east and spread west, unlike now, where states east of the Missouri river have generally received good precipitation. If anything, farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri are complaining that their soil has been too drenched for them to start planting.

And there were also almost no signals of drought in spring 2012, so it took farmers by surprise when dryness started developing in the summer.

“The first areas in the region showing drought in 2012 were Illinois, Indiana and then it kind of just exploded from there in late June, early July,” Fuchs said. “That’s not what we’re seeing this year. Temperatures have also been cooler than in 2012, which has been a saving grace.”

Droughts are a part of the natural weather cycle in the Plains, Fuchs said. So it’s not unexpected that the region would go through another dry spell a decade after its last big drought.

Yet Kansas meteorologist Chip Redmond said climate change could play a part in pushing dryness into drought. He said weather events are getting more extreme, with heavy rain flanked by long dry periods. Higher temperatures could be another contributing factor.

“It’s a slow, gradual impact,” Redmond said. “When we look at things like above-normal overnight temperatures – which has been a really common theme of climate change – we can develop drought more readily, potentially.”

The Drought Center’s research shows dry conditions persisting through the end of July. That has farmers and ranchers like Uhrmacher and Rice praying the recent rains continue.

“We’re in dire straits with the drought conditions we have right now,” Rice said. “ If Mother Nature could turn the spigot on then that could change, but right now we don’t even know if we’re going to raise a crop. We need water, we need rain.”

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert

Nebraska Public Media’s Will Bauer contributed reporting to this story, and the Midwest Newsroom’s Daniel Wheaton analyzed data. 

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM