Rita Brhel photo --
Fairfield, Neb., located in the southcentral portion of the state in Clay County, had been listed as a severe-level drought area until recent rains helped ease its status.
Rita Brhel photo -- Fairfield, Neb., located in the southcentral portion of the state in Clay County, had been listed as a severe-level drought area until recent rains helped ease its status.

By Rita Brhel

It was all south-central Nebraska farmers could talk about for days: the 2 to 7 inches their parched ground received on June 19. Another timely rain a week later further loosened the grip of drought that had plagued much of the region for the past couple months. This week, the U.S. Drought Monitor downgraded the threat to merely “abnormally dry.”
After the coldest April on record, according to the National Weather Service, May was named as the warmest on record. By mid-June, the continued days on end of near 100-degree heat without any rain quickly burned up the stunted cool-season grass. Many farmers were wondering if the region would repeat the summer of 2012, a fiercely hot drought.
Needless to say, the return of rain has been called an answer to prayers.
“If my cows had any teeth, you could see them smiling with the weather change,” joked Jason Gerdes, a cow-calf producer and feeder near Fairfield in Clay County, Neb.
Clay is one of seven south-central Nebraska counties that had been classified by the U.S. Drought Monitor as under a D2 severe-level drought for the weeks before. Sharing the label of “abnormally dry” seems to be a big step up for this region. The hope is that this year’s unusual weather patterns will bring regular rains through July rather than the climate-typical dry spell of mid-summer.
Gerdes added that ideally this next month would also bring down the temperatures.
“When it comes to drought or rain, drought means less pasture, higher feed prices, and dust pneumonia,” he reasoned. “Rain brings lower feed costs, muddier pens, and more manure. Of course, a happier medium would be best. Weight gains are better on dry lots, but those 950-plus pounders are hard to keep alive when it’s too hot. Cooler days, not as wet, are ideal situations.”
Though, if he had to choose, “more rain pencils out better than an all-out drought,” Gerdes added.
But the recent rains may not be quite enough to keep many producers from taking certain measures to relieve their forage deficits.
Matt Weigand, commodity broker at FuturesOne in Lincoln, Neb., works with producers across Nebraska and surrounding states. He has heard firsthand about the grazing difficulties in far southern Nebraska and into northwest Kansas.
“It’s pretty tough grass there,” Weigand said of pastures in Franklin and Webster counties. “There is a potential of producers needing to wean early and find grass out west.”
The forage shortage started long before May’s record heat came into being. When it seemed winter would never end, producers were forced to feed their hay reserves in April to make up for an extra late spring green-up. The farmers who ran out of hay had to purchase additional bales, often older inventory, leaving even less forage availability in the region. With short pastures and no hay, unless the weather makes a drastic turnaround quickly to add in timely rains this next month, many producers may not have any forage left to feed the whole of the summer. Their only alternative then would be to sell.
“They will have to trim numbers,” Weigand said. “Anything marginal or open will have to go. They will have no other choice but to move stuff around and protect their assets as best as possible.”
“We will have a better cow herd at the end of the day, but it will be smaller,” he added.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, south-central Nebraska is forecast to receive above normal temperatures until at least this time next year. For the remainder of the summer, there is an equal chance for either above or below normal precipitation amounts, while this fall looks to be wetter than normal.
Despite what the weather does during the next few months, the domino effect of drought-stressed pastures and shorter hay stores may already be set in motion. If so, Weigand said to expect a tighter feeder calf market this fall. Whether this greatly affects prices depends much on the boxed beef and other world markets as well as the grain harvest. If the weather affects pasture growth, it certainly can do the same to crops. How well the corn acreage does this growing season is another ingredient in the beef market.
“Sometimes it doesn’t take much to be upset there,” Weigand said of the corn market.
But another important factor to consider is the U.S. economy. This can be a real boon to the beef market.
“The dollar isn’t back to the high of last year, but if our strong dollar persists into the fall, that will help balance out everything,” Weigand said.