County drought status is extreme

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Several counties in southwest Missouri, including Barry County, are now considered to be at extreme drought levels, according to the National Weather Service in Springfield.

The latest Drought Information Statement released on Feb. 10 says that eight extreme southwest Missouri counties, including Barry, McDonald, Newton, Lawrence and Stone counties, are under extreme drought conditions.

After a very warm January with little precipitation, the National Weather Service predicts that warm and dry conditions will persist into the spring. Winter is normally the driest season in the Ozarks, and the prospect of making up for the present precipitation deficit remains poor.

The majority of the region received less than two inches of precipitation during the month of January. Although the small rainfall provided some short term aid to the drought-stricken area, severe conditions remain in effect.

"Northwest, west-central and southwest Missouri, along with the St. Louis metro area, all received below-normal precipit-ation," said Pat Guinan, of the University of Missouri Commer-cial Agriculture program. "Although we haven't had a lot of precipitation, what we have received has been able to move into the soil profile because there's been no frost line to contend with."

According the the National Weather Service, cooler temperatures will reduce soil moisture evaporation bringing some relief to the area, but water levels in local waterways continue to drop.

Some rivers in McDonald and Newton counties are completely dry and others in Stone County are nearing the dry mark. Levels across the region remain below normal with some waterways recording record lows.

Rainfall deficits are currently over 14 inches in portions of southwest Missouri. A large portion of the state has received only 70 percent of its normal rainfall. Barry County was between 50 and 70 percent below its normal precipitation amounts for 2005.

Joplin reported 32.51 inches of precipitation, which is a deficit of 13.42 inches or 71 percent, making last year the driest period in Joplin since 1980.

"According to preliminary data, 2005 fell just three-tenths of a degree short of the record average of 40.7 degrees set in January of 1933," said Guinan. "Overall, most locations averaged 13 to 16 degrees above normal for the month. That's just amazing."

Areas in extreme southwest Missouri have reported even drier conditions with soil moisture readings more than 160 millimeters below normal.

The lack of water is causing havoc on local agriculture businesses, especially beef and dairy cattle operations.

"The ground water situation with the soil moisture is getting serious," said Kent Arnaud, who runs a beef operation north of Purdy with his father, Victor. "It's starting to scare everybody. There is a severe lack of water in the ponds."

Arnaud has cleaned out around six ponds on his family's 1,300-acre farm. Many of the ponds have dried out a second time since the dry weather began last year.

"A lot of people are hauling water, which is a nightmare,"said Arnaud. "Several people are digging wells and running water lines."

Some farmers have been able to get government assistance in digging wells or lowering well depths.

"We have a spring that never goes dry, and it has been dry a long time this year," said Arnaud. "The moisture in the soil needs to be recharged. Right now, we can't make good use of our pastures."

The biggest issues are the lack of water in farm ponds and the prospective hay yields, said Tony Rickard, Barry County University of Extension dairy specialist.

"Several producers have to keep moving their cattle to where the water is," said Rickard, "The forage yields we're going to get is a concern, because cattle are grazing on areas where they usually cut hay.

"It's very unusual to have these concerns," said Rickard. "I can't remember many years like this one.

"If it keeps like this, we will end up like any other hot and dry season when we didn't get rain," said Rickard. "Farmers will have to reduce their herd size to match what resources they have available."

"If this continues we will probably be pumping water and cutting back on cows," said Arnaud. "We will be buying more inputs, but we will eventually be forced to liquidate."

Arnaud expects the price of cattle to drop temporarily if many farmers sell their cattle, but he said prices will rise again for the farmers who make it through the effects of the drought.

"I'm an optimist," said Rickard. "Things look pretty dire now, but typically we get the rains and we have to hope and pray for that this time too."

The warm weather has brought some benefits to area agriculture businesses also.

"We're calving now, and it's nice for feeding and calving," said Arnaud. "It's good with the temperatures and no mud. If it were covered in snow then we would have to put a lot more hay out this year."

The future weather outlook doesn't look promising. A study of the years 1971 to 2000 show February, March and April highs between 40 and 60 degrees and average lows between 20s and 40s in the Joplin area. On average around three inches of precipitation fall in the area per month.

The warm start to 2006 will in no way predict the weather for the entire year, said Guinan.

"It's a toss up," said Guinan. "If you look at the years with the 10 warmest Januaries, half the following Februaries were above average and half were below average."

The State of Missouri Drought Advisory Committee will meet to review the current conditions in Missouri on Feb. 17.

The National Weather Service Drought Information Statement is compiled by the National Weather Service, the National Climate Data Center, the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Drought Mitigation Center and state and regional climatologist centers.

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