As a majority of Southwest livestock producers prepare to enter the historically driest period of the year, the pressures of an escalating drought and a shortage of hay and feed already has some ranchers scrambling for possible solutions to what could well be an incredibly dry summer across the region.
USDA, the National Weather Service (NWS), state agriculture and Extension officials are already raising the warning flag over dry winter and spring conditions experienced across Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, which have escalated concerns over a growing shortage of grazing acres and hay and feed necessary to sustain herd health in the weeks and months ahead.
Last week a late season cool front influenced by Gulf and Pacific moisture filtering into the region helped to fire off a line of thunderstorms that dropped up to an inch of rain in isolated areas and much less on a broader scale in parts of the Southwest. But hydrologists warn the thirsty landscape received virtually no help in the face of a growing drought in the hardest hit areas.
"Drought is like malnutrition. One meal is not going to catch you up," NWS Royce Fontenot told a crowd at a regional drought meeting earlier this month.
Reports from southeast New Mexico, where some of the nation's most nutritional alfalfa is grown, indicate livestock producers have been buying up available stocks rapidly. Hay production in the area is expected to diminish in the weeks ahead unless additional rains or irrigation allotments increase, which is unlikely considering intensifying dry conditions.
To further complicate matters are the growing number of wildfire outbreaks. Dry air and high winds continue to fuel fire concerns across most of the Southwest as farmers and ranchers are battling active fires in at least a half dozen states.
"A particularly dangerous situation is expected to develop with extreme fire weather and very dry fuels across western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle as well as eastern New Mexico and into Colorado. Hardest hit may be areas in Oklahoma, New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle, but many wildfires either erupted or were sustained across the entire region over the last two weeks," cites a recent National Weather statement.
NWS issued an “extremely critical” fire weather outlook for large parts of the Southwest early last week that covers parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
State and federal officials in Oklahoma and Texas say dry conditions have destroyed or hampered wheat crops in both states. Wheat that has survived the dry winter and spring in many areas is of poor quality, further complicating pasture and hay shortages for cattle raisers across the region.
In New Mexico, some livestock producers have been scrambling to find productive grazing acres in nearby and distant areas where they can move parts of their herd to offset problems created by dry pastures in their immediate region. New Mexico Department of Agriculture officials say some ranchers are already selling off parts of the herd in anticipation of worsening dry conditions expected this summer.
The NWS warned in April that the threat of wildfire incidents remains extreme to critical this week in almost all of West Texas, over half of Oklahoma, nearly all of New Mexico and stretches deep into southern Kansas and over a third of Arizona. The Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet, drought has been termed critical, some of the worst dry conditions in recent times, and forecasters say there is little hope for relief in the coming months.
The drought in the hardest hit areas of the Southwest is already being called significant from a historic perspective.
"It’s pretty significant in the context of history," says Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with USDA.
Rippey authored the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In hardest hit areas of the Southwest, less than an inch of rain has fallen in 2018. Compared to last year, that's only about 25 percent of the four-plus inches that fell in the first four months of 2017.
A long-term U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook map released April 19 predicts drought conditions will persist at least until July 31.