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On March 16, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) issued its 2017 Spring Outlook, and they reported, “Much of the lower 48 experienced one of the warmest winters on record, with the southwest and eastern half of the nation leading the way.”

The Spring Outlook is part of the suite of tools that NOAA prepares to help state and local government and citizens prepare for potential weather events.

In retrospect

The year was the second warmest February and sixth warmest winter on record.

A short-lived La Niña, about five months long, led to colder-than-average conditions in the Pacific Northwest, but beyond that, the effects were limited.

NOAA predicted above normal temperatures for the southwest corner of the state of Wyoming, and those temperatures were largely realized, but the northern half of the state saw below normal temperatures.

Additionally, the above-median forecasted precipitation was also largely observed in the state this winter.

Spring

Mike Halpert of the NOAA Climate Prediction Center said, “The April to June temperature outlooks suggests this pattern will continue.”

“For the next three months, on average, above-average temperatures are predicted,” Tom Graziano, director of NOAA’s Office of Water Prediction, said. “No areas in the U.S. are favored to see below-average temperatures.”

“Climate models, statistical tools and our expert opinion don’t tell us much about what to expect for precipitation this spring over much of the country,” Halpert added. “However, above-median precipitation is favored through the Gulf Coast and Northern Plains.”

Models indicate that northeastern Wyoming is forecasted to receive above-normal precipitation, as well. However, drought in that region is predicted to continue over the next month.

“Odds favor wetter-than-average conditions for the northern Rockies and Northern Plains,” NOAA commented.

Floods

Seasonal moderate to heavy rainfall will increase flood potential in the Midwest and Southeast. Coupled with extreme winter snows in parts of the U.S., namely the Northern Plains, Graziano added that the risk of moderate to major flooding is elevated.

“Some areas in the West carry minor or moderate risk of flooding,” Halpert commented. “Snow is also a factor to New England’s risk of flooding.”

Graziano said that flooding is akin to the last several years. He noted that flooding in Northern Plains appears similar to 2013.

In central and southeast Idaho, extending into southwest Wyoming, the Snake River Basin is expected to see moderate flooding, said Graziano.

“For those in northern North Dakota or in the Snake River basin in Idaho, prepare for moderate to major flooding this spring,” said Graziano. “Snowpack is heavy in the West and Northern Plains, and if our long-term warm-up coincides with spring rains, already saturated soils will not be able to absorb the increased water, which would lead to increased runoff and potential flooding.”

The period from December 2016 to February 2017 brought significant rain and snow to sections of the United States. This period was the wettest on record to Nevada and Wyoming, Graziano commented.

“Rapid snowmelt from rain storms on top of snowpack has already caused flooding at lower elevations of this region,” he explained. “How long the flooding could last and how intense it will be depends on future precipitation and temperatures.”

“It floods somewhere in the U.S. every day of the year,” said NOAA Operational Prediction Branch Chief Jon Gottschalck.

“Extreme weather events often lead to minor flooding,” Halpert commented. “Citizens are encouraged to monitor their local forecasts to be weather-ready and climate smart.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“Drought is a tricky thing to talk about,” said National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) Program Assistant Program Director Chad McNutt. “If we’re an irrigator, drought is going to affect us differently than someone who is running dryland.”

McNutt discussed tools and resources available to producers for predicting drought conditions on their operation.

Outlooks

NOAA releases seasonal outlooks, both monthly and quarterly.

The outlooks give predictions for whether temperatures and precipitation will be above or below average.

“That doesn’t tell us magnitude. It just tells us the odds of either going above average or below average,” McNutt explained. “Nonetheless, these are what we use.”

McNutt noted that NOAA also releases a weekly Drought Monitor, which is combined with the seasonal outlooks to create drought outlooks.

“This is state-of-the-art when it comes to drought forecasting, and this is what we have to work with,” he said.

The different colors in the drought outlook predicts where drought development is likely, where it will likely persist and what areas may see improvement.

“In the brown are areas where we expect drought to persist, and the green colors are where we think drought development is likely. If we go to those lighter shades, that’s where we think improvement is going to happen,” McNutt continued.

Limitations

“Unfortunately, we live in an area of the country that doesn’t have a very strong signal with El Niño or La Niña,” said McNutt.

He noted that neither the 2011 flood or 2012 drought were predicted, even with a La Niña both years.

“In fact, there was some research done following those episodes on the forecast specifically, and they said, with the methodology and skill that we have with the latest science, we couldn’t have predicted either event,” McNutt continued.

He cautioned, “Even though we have these tools, like drought outlooks and seasonal outlooks, we really have to be careful how we use them.”

However, McNutt explained that the outlooks can still be useful to look at forecasts.

“I would look at shorter-term forecasts, rather than so much over the season, and then I would understand what current conditions look like on my operation,” he said.

Ground truth

“One of the interesting things about the Drought Monitor is it’s not a model,” commented McNutt.

While the seasonal outlooks are a model process, the Drought Monitor uses comprehensive sources for input.

“It takes into account a lot of data, but it also takes in a lot of user feedback from each state,” he continued. “One of the best things about this product is they look at a lot of variables, but they’re ground-truthing it with people on the ground.”

Each week, McNutt explained that there is a listserv where participants discuss what conditions look like in their area and provide input on how accurate the data is in describing the actual conditions.

He noted, “It’s kind of a convergence-of-evidence-type of approach where we have all of these variables, and then we’ve got people writing in, saying the variables we’re tracking aren’t showing drought or drought is worse than we’re depicting.”

Monitor basics

While used as a research tool for many years, the Drought Monitor first began being formally used in drought predictions in 1999.

“There was a drought in Washington, D.C. in 1998-99, and they said told researchers to get the system operational as quickly as possible,” McNutt commented.

The composite Drought Monitor map is released every Thursday morning, explained McNutt.

“We call it a composite map because it takes into account a lot of different indicators,” he said.

Both federal agencies and nonfederal participants, such as the National Weather Service, Farm Service Agency and Extension, contribute to the monitor.

One author per week works to compile all of the data and user input into the coming week’s map.

“They’re looking at the current week’s map, and they’re making adjustments based on where it’s rained or snowed, what shrink flows look like or what soil moisture looks like, what groundwater looks like,” concluded McNutt. “They actually produce the map, taking input from all over.”

McNutt spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently updated their state-specific climate summaries after the demand for state-level information increased with the release of the Third National Climate Assessment.

NOAA said, “These summaries cover assessment topics directly related to NOAA’s mission, specifically historical climate variations and trends, future climate model projections of climate conditions during the 21st century and past and future conditions of sea level and coastal flooding.”

Wyo climate

NOAA began by explaining the factors affecting Wyoming’s overall climate.

“Wyoming’s climate is determined, to a large extent, by its location in the middle latitudes, in frequent close proximity to the jet stream and in the interior of the North American continent, far from oceanic moisture sources,” they explained.

The proximity to jet streams brings frequent storms but a lack of moisture, resulting in a semi-arid climate.

“It has large climatic variations due to its geographic diversity and altitudinal range,” NOAA said of the state.

A range of elevation from 3,100 feet to 13,800 feet and a similar variation in temperature is also seen.

Key messages

NOAA identified three key messages for each state, noting that temperature increases, precipitation increases and evaporation increases will all have impacts in the state in the future.

“Average annual temperature has increased approximately 1.4 degree Fahrenheit since the early 20th century,” NOAA remarked. “This increase is most evident in winter warming, which has been characterized by a below average occurrence of very cold days since 2000.”

They added, “Under a higher emissions pathway, historically unprecedented warming is projected by the end of the 21st century.”

Next, they noted that increases are projected for both spring and winter precipitation, which will include a shift from rainfall to snowfall in the spring. The result could increase flood potential.

Finally, NOAA said, “Higher temperatures will increase evaporation rate and decrease soil moisture, leading to more intense future droughts.”

The impact will be an increase in the occurrence and severity of wildfires in Wyoming, according to NOAA.

Water impacts

As a key point of their analysis, NOAA mentioned, “Wyoming serves as a major source of water for other states, and changes in precipitation can have broad impacts beyond the state’s boundaries.”

Water from the state flow into the Missouri-Mississippi river basin, the Green-Colorado river basin, the Snake-Columbia river basin and the Great Salt Lake river basin.

Variation in snowpack affects water availability across the West, as well.

“In years with heavy snow cover, heavy rains during the spring thaw can cause severe flooding by causing rapid melting of the snowpack,” they added.

Additionally, the state is susceptible to drought – a fact well known by most in the ag industry.

“From 1999 to 2008, large portions of the state experienced drought,” NOAA said, mentioning that 2012 was Wyoming’s driest year since 1895. “By October 2012, almost 90 percent of the state was in severe drought.”

When coupled with hot temperatures and high wind, wildfires were rampant.

Future climate

From their research, NOAA noted that spring and winter precipitation are projected to increase between five and 15 percent across the state.

“This will increase the likelihood that some of the precipitation events now occurring as snow will fall as rain instead, reducing water storage in the snowpack, particularly at lower elevations,” NOAA said.

An earlier melting snowpack means that summer months would likely be drier, as well as an increased potential for flooding.

Future droughts are also projected to be more severe.

“Even if precipitation amount increase in the future, rises in temperature will increase evaporation rates, resulting in a decreased rate of loss of soil moisture during dry spells,” NOAA noted.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In a region of the country that averages approximately 12 inches of liquid precipitation per year, drought preparedness is an important consideration for agricultural operations in Wyoming.

University of Wyoming Extension Educator Mae Smith encourages producers to be proactive in their management approach, assessing their current operation, as well as the flexibility of their enterprise and business.

Proactive

An open source article called “Adaptive Management for Drought on Rangelands,” which was featured in the Rangelands magazine, discusses multiple strategies for drought planning, said Smith.

“They talk a lot about what managers do and can do for proactive drought planning,” she continued.

The article strongly advised producers to follow a common outline for assessing drought preparedness.

“The three things that they mention are enterprise flexibility, management flexibility and knowledge of our resources and how to use them,” explained Smith.

Enterprise

When looking at enterprise flexibility, one of the primary factors to consider is what an operation’s herd structure looks like.

Smith questioned, “What is our ratio of cow/calf pairs to stockers or heifers and steers?”

“With that ratio, how flexible are we in our enterprises if we have a really dry year? Can we liquidate some or be able to move them around?” continued Smith.

She noted that different enterprises are inherently more flexible than others.

  “With a cow/calf-pair base, we’re much less flexible, and we probably don’t want to sell our best cows off in times of drought,” she stressed. “Therefore, if we had more yearlings or stockers, we could have a lot more flexibility.”

When looking at enterprise flexibility, Smith commented that the key is to match forage availability with the operation’s forage utilization plan.

Smith said, “In good years, do we have enough animals to use up the additional forage that could be out there and in years of harder, drier times, do we have the flexibility to reduce our base a little bit?”

Management

Management flexibility is especially important in drought preparedness, and producers are encouraged to use active management, making adjustments as they get information back.

“We’re going to use our relevant data to make informed management decisions to reduce risk,” said Smith.

“By making those decisions on good data, continually looking at our operation and seeing what adjustments need to be made, we’ll be able to reduce that risk,” she continued.

Smith explained that there are three primary components of management flexibility.

“The three things they talk about for management flexibility are to be able to predict and track precipitation and forage, overall having pretty conservative stocking rates and that will allow us to go through harder times with less risk and then using inherent spatial variability,” she commented.

Stocking

Precipitation timing and forage production potential are important factors to consider in making management decisions.

“We have snow right now, but if we don’t get any more precipitation for the rest of the year, then our big precipitation at the beginning of the year may not have made much of a difference for the actual forage that our animals are eating,” explained Smith.

As such, Smith advised producers to have flexible stocking rates and to use conservative stocking rates.

“They have done a study where, if 10 to 33 percent of the operation is resting, then the producers had built-in forage insurance, so they were able to ride through those drier times,” she said.

Smith continued, “We’re going to have more resiliency in our plant communities. They’re going to bounce back from those drought situations, and we’re hopefully not going to have to sell livestock.”

Decisions

“Setting up key dates and making decisions on those key dates will help with our management flexibility,” commented Smith.

Producers are encouraged to pick a date that they will make management decisions on if they are expecting it to be a dry year.

“The timing and amount of precipitation in April to May is really critical to what that forage is going to look like through the year,” said Smith. “We may set a date of May 15 to June 1, and if we haven’t received precipitation by that time, that’s when we need to be making some decisions.”

As forage variability goes up and down, producers may be tempted to increase their herd size when there are a few years with good precipitation.

“We should probably do that slowly, so we don’t get into a situation where things could turn around really quickly and we don’t know what to do with those animals,” she concluded.

Smith spoke during the 2017 Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days.

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Most of us start worrying about drought when we need to, not when we want to. I encourage all of you to start thinking about drought management and contingency plans now, both because we are able to consider various strategies that may require time and money to implement – a luxury not often afforded to us during a drought – and because the next drought could be just around the corner.

We are in a “slower” time of year for most operations, and we should have some time to do some long-term planning. Take advantage of the colder weather by staying inside by the fire and looking at ways to improve your operation’s resiliency, especially as it regards drought.

This is a time of year that should allow of you to revisit the experiences from the last drought and ask the questions, “What did we have to do? And, in hindsight, were there better options?” “What would have helped if we had done it sooner?” and “What resources would have helped us if we had them in place?”

The next drought

As we all know, in Wyoming we are never far from the next drought. The most recent drought monitor, available at droughtmonitor.unl.edu, puts over 61 percent of the state in “Abnormally Dry” conditions. Granted, much of our forage is currently dormant, but I am still concerned about the lack of moisture. Most of us have seen the research showing how important spring precipitation is to forage production in our state.

Further, recent research out of the Agricultural Research Service shows that cow/calf production in our region is also dependent on prior winter precipitation. This work implies that now is a very good time to start thinking about drought, as we are two months into an important period for precipitation and we are behind.

Granted, the El Niño cycle is projected to bring moisture yet this winter, but we are already behind, and the moisture has not materialized yet. I’ll be happy if it does, but I also want to be prepared in case it doesn’t.

Implementing plans

Another reason I think it is a good time to revisit our drought plans is that we are probably in the best situation we have been in and are likely to be able to implement some of our grander plans.

While cattle prices have tumbled a bit in recent months, they are still well above any year other than 2014. We are in the unique position of having had two good price years in a row. Of course, annual cow costs have increased year-over-year, but even with the increased cow costs, we are expecting very high returns to cow/calf producers this year.

Don’t get too comfortable, though. Most analysts expect these annual returns to drop dramatically as inventory numbers increase. As you can see in the accompanying figure, the 2014 and 2015 annual returns on a per-cow basis have been much higher than any other time in recent history, and no one expects these to last.

Therefore, as everyone begins the tax management part of the year, I encourage you to see if there are any infrastructure improvements that can be implemented now. We should be in the unique position of having available capital to invest and be able to make proactive decisions in regards to drought rather than the reactive strategies we usually have to make.

Proactive strategies

Most proactive strategies take some time and capital to implement and will vary greatly across operations but may include fencing/water placement to encourage more uniform utilization, the establishment of grass banks and even irrigation systems.

The goal of any proactive strategy should allow us to rely less on the reactive strategies such as excessive destocking, early weaning and buying additional feed that often allows us to get through the tough times but can hurt our operation in the long-run.

Again, deciding on which investment is right for your place is dependent on the operation’s resources, and I encourage you to ask a range and/or animal specialist for help prioritizing improvements on your place.

This is the year you will most likely be able to afford the improvements you’ve been meaning to make on your operation. Before the end of the year, sit down and figure those out.

But, don’t spend money just to spend it. There may not be any specific projects that would have helped you in recent drought years. In that case, I encourage you to not spend money just to decrease your tax bill this year.

It may be the wisest investment to leave some profit in the savings account so you have access to a “rainy day” account when you need it, which, in the livestock business, is usually those days that aren’t actually rainy.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service research report referenced in this article can be found at Reeves, J.L., Derner, J.D., Sanderson, M.A., Petersen, M.K., Vermeire, L.T., Hendrickson, J.R., Kronberg, S.L., 2013a. Seasonal temperature and precipitation effects on cow-calf production in northern mixed-grass prairie. Livest. Science 155, 355-363.