Drought and heat pack a significant punch

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July 31, 2011 - 7:00pm

Thirty-plus days of 100 degree heat changes a place.

Out here in the vast open plains of western Kansas, severe drought has made irrigation futile and turned everyday weeds into poisonous traps.

And the heat wave doesn't look to be breaking. Southwest Kansas is predicted to see 100 plus degree temperatures every day this week.

Photo by Eric Durban, Harvest Public Media

Precipitation in Kansas from April to June was three inches lower than normal.

Photo by Eric Durban, Harvest Public Media

Severe drought in Kansas has forced many farmers to give up on their wilting cornfields.

Almost two-thirds of Kansas counties are eligible for drought disaster assistance, and Governor Sam Brownback recently asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to widen the area.

In the air, you can feel how incredibly dry and how incredibly hot it is.

And then you look down at the ground, and it's even worse.

I asked Kent Martin to come into the fields with me in southwest Kansas to look deep into the parched, cracked earth. Martin is a crop and soil specialist at the Kansas State Southwest Research and Extension Center. He brought along a soil penetrometer and soil probe to test moisture levels.

With all his weight, Martin forced the tools the ground.

"If we're able to form a ball or form a band with the soil we know we've got some sufficient moisture there that we're basically nearing field capacity on something like that," Martin said. "This of course I can't do that, and so we know that we're limited on the moisture."

Reports show only one percent of the topsoil in southwest Kansas has adequate moisture, and when looking at the ground I'm surprised there's even that.

Precipitation levels from April to June totaled just above 4.5 inches, more than 3 inches below normal at the research center in Garden City, Kan.

At up to two feet deep, Martin said topsoils in western Kansas are more drought resistant than those in the eastern part of the state that only reach a couple inches. But in these conditions, even two feet won't cut it.

"The soil makeup makes a lot of difference, and even within specific fields or within a county, there's such a wide variety of soil

types that our moisture holding capacities can really change," Martin said. It's so hot that irrigation systems just aren't able to move around the entire crop circle quick enough to keep moisture in the ground. Mother Nature is trumping technology.

"The high temperatures force the plant to use more moisture, so moisture is a way of the plant cooling itself basically," Martin said. "So it's just like of course we're standing out in the middle of a field right now in a hundred degree weather and I'm sweating. That's my way of cooling myself and I have to drink a lot of water to do that."

Martin said if farmers haven't already decided to abandon part of their corn crop, they'll likely have to consider it soon.

The wilting crops aren't the only thing suffering though; cattle are also feeling the heat.

Winter Livestock Auction in Dodge City, Kan. recently saw more than 5,000 cattle sold in one July day, a number they usually don't see until late August. Dry pastures just can't handle the usual number of animals.

"We really have to be careful about our water, we have to be careful about our feed or what the cattle eat," Kansas State University beef veterinarian Larry Hollis said. "Just going into a drought sets off a whole new set of circumstances that we have to manage around so that we can keep our cattle healthy."

One of those challenges is poisonous plants. Hollis said that weed species tend to proliferate in drought conditions.

"They will grow year after year, but generally the cattle will selectively graze the non-toxic species," Hollis said. "So each producer has to know the weedy species that are present on their operation."

Kochia is one of those weeds that grows every year, but Hollis said many times it's a good forage for cattle in western Kansas. Yet with heat and drought, the weed flips and becomes poisonous.

If the rain stays away and scorching temperatures continue, ranchers will have to make important decisions regarding their business.

The repercussions from over-grazing or selling off entire herds are likely to last beyond just this summer.



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