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USDA: Cattle, Winter Wheat Affected by March Drought Expansion in Southern Plains

Written by Brad Rippey

During the five-week period ending on April 5, contiguous U.S. drought coverage increased to 16.71 percent – up 2.41 percentage points. Since reaching a five-and-a-half-year minimum of 12.41 percent on March 15, drought coverage has increased 4.30 percentage points. Most of the increase has been driven by the development of short-term drought across the Central and Southern Plains and the Southwest, while further erosion of drought has occurred in northern California and the Northwest.

March was a month of precipitation extremes, ranging from very dry conditions in the nation’s southwestern quadrant to severe flooding from easternmost Texas into the lower Mississippi Valley.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, state precipitation rankings ranged from the driest March on record in New Mexico to the second-wettest March in Louisiana and Wisconsin. New Mexico’s monthly precipitation averaged 0.06 inches – eight percent of normal, tying a March 1956 standard. Five other states – Arizona, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – experienced a top-10 ranking for March dryness.

In contrast, Louisiana’s monthly precipitation averaged 10.40 inches, second only to 10.79 inches in March 1926. Wisconsin’s average of 3.83 inches trailed only 4.02 inches in March 1977. March totals were also among the 10 highest values on record in Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan.

On April 5, more than one-third, about 36 percent, of the western U.S. remained in drought, down from 57 percent in early October 2015. Most – 91 percent – of California was still in drought on April 5, down six percentage points from the beginning of the water year on October 1, 2015. However, California’s coverage of exceptional drought has fallen from 46 to 32 percent since Oct. 1.

Farther north, drought in Washington and Idaho has been eradicated since the beginning of the water year, down from coverage of 100 and 86 percent, respectively.

On April 5, drought affected 17 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, up from eight percent on March 8 but down from an autumn 2015 peak of 27 percent.

On April 5, the portion of the U.S. winter wheat production area in drought stood at 20 percent, up sharply from a late-winter minimum of three percent on March 8. Nationally, more than half – 59 percent – of the winter wheat was rated in good to excellent condition on April 3, while just seven percent of the crop was rated very poor to poor. However, more than one-tenth of the winter wheat was rated very poor to poor in Colorado – 16 percent, and Texas – 11 percent.

Across the Southwestern Plains, recent weather conditions have included drought, freezes, wildfires and blowing dust, all of which have contributed to an increase in stress on the winter wheat crop.

On April 5, the Midwest remained free of drought, continuing a 14-week trend that began on Jan. 5. However, abnormal dryness has expanded in recent weeks across parts of Missouri, western Minnesota and west-central Illinois. Due to developing drought across portions of the Plains, four percent of the U.S. corn production area was in drought on April 5. At the same time, two percent of the U.S. soybean area was in drought.

The next issuance of this drought update will be May 5, unless conditions warrant an earlier release. The “U.S. Crops in Drought” products are produced on a weekly basis and are online at usda.gov/oce/weather/Drought/AgInDrought.pdf.