NEFB Newspaper

Wildfires rage, but drought conditions improve; La Niña ends El Niño is coming

Talk about weather whiplash. In Nebraska, it might be 80 degrees in the morning and back down to 30 degrees by night, with strong winds of upwards of 50 mph in the middle of the day. April 2023 weather has caused major concerns in Nebraska. Even as we slowly come out of a drought, it’s still dry and windy, and fires are sparking up across the state.

Wildfires have already burned over 125,000 acres across the state, with Custer, Blaine, Cherry, Garfield, and Jefferson Counties all seeing large swaths go ablaze. 2022 was the second-worst year for wildfires in Nebraska history, and 2023 is following suit. After a year so short on precipitation, with $2 billion in crop losses and 100% of the state being under some form of drought, conditions are ripe for wildfires.

“There’s a ton of dead, dry vegetation out there after last year,” said NEFB Ag Economist Austin Harthoorn. “With the warmth and wind April has brought here in Nebraska, fires can just take off.” With this happening amid calving and planting season, it’s a shining reminder the entire agriculture industry is shaped by the weather conditions farmers and ranchers face.

“Yield, commodity prices, cattle inventory, management decisions, input costs – you name it – it’s all founded in what the weather decides to do,” Harthoorn said. “Moving forward, though, weather conditions seem to be improving in Nebraska. Growers in some of the driest corners of the state received a good deal of snowfall this winter.”

For many of you, that doesn’t tell the half of it. In the Panhandle, there’s been near record snow accumulations, with places like Chadron tallying over 85 inches in the past few months. Most other areas of the state are well above their typical snowfall amounts, too.

“Back in my hometown of Ainsworth, they’ve gotten over 50 inches this winter. My family owns cattle, so it’s been difficult, and being under snow all winter long can take its mental toll, but the precipitation is so needed. Drought conditions have improved because of it, and soil moisture is ample enough to get a solid start with crops, hay and pasture,” Harthoorn said.

The drought monitor is evidence of this, showing improvement since last fall. While nearly the entire state is still under some form of drought, many D4 and D3 areas, the most severe drought classifications, now fall in the D2 and D1 categories. The image shows this progress clearly in comparing the most recent drought monitor to where Nebraska stood in mid-December.

On top of this, more favorable weather may be ahead for Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers. The climate pattern known as La Niña is heading out and its counterpart, El Niño, is on its way, potentially bringing better weather with it. La Niña, which is traditionally associated with lower crop yields in the Plains, has officially come to an end after three years. Al Dutcher, longtime state climatologist, said while the El Niño pattern seems to be forming, the timing of its arrival will be everything.

“An El Niño formation is almost a certainty; it’s just a matter of when,” Dutcher said. “For the Plains, we do not want to see this develop too early in the summer, as this may mean a dry spell in the second half of the growing season. Current models do point toward a late summer or early fall start, however.”

While favorable weather conditions are still far from a guarantee, especially as this spring we are all on high alert for wildfire, there is reason to be optimistic. “We’ll need above normal moisture to eliminate these moisture deficits across Nebraska, and these shifting patterns may bring that moisture we need,” Dutcher said.

Harthoorn is the host of Nebraska Farm Bureau’s “Inside Profitability,” and in the latest edition of the series Dutcher goes over what growers can expect to see weather wise in Nebraska this spring, summer, and fall.

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