By Blaine Davis Contributing Editor
Looking across the dashboard of my “iron steed,” I discover a switch of uncertain function. Sliding it to the right, suddenly a screeching, dry noise emanated from across my windshield. With tongue-in-cheek, I believe it has been an eternity since moisture – in the form of rain or even snow – has fallen in western Kansas to warrant my windshield wipers. This prolonged drought and other weather anomalies have become more than just coffee shop fodder. In the past impromptu “rainfall competitions,” I jested that twice the actual rain fell as I added both my gauges together. Contrasting this logic, does that mean this past year has been twice as dry with only dust registering within these two?
With most weather discussions centering around moisture or lack thereof, recently an arctic blast grabbed most of the attention through the central United States. Subzero-degree temperatures even reached deep into Texas. On the “Third Coast” temperatures caused “winter Texans” to shiver and my property manager at Port Aransas to take uncommon winter protective measures. Receiving their email, they would implement insulative wraps of exposed pipes, check exterior hose bibs and open interior faucets to allow a dripping flow. As I experienced the brutal cold and wind chills here in Kansas, I chuckled at such measures. But then I remembered checking my water meter vault last fall to discover the supply line was a mere 6 inches below my St. Augustine grass lawn.
Back on the ranch, most experienced livestock producers have endured the brutal arctic weather patterns in the past and take commonsense approaches recommended by my alma mater, Kansas State University, and their Beef Cattle Institute issued in response to this latest weather scenario. Their recommendations ranged from the issue of water and tank heaters – cattle will likely drink less but will need access to ample supplies – to protective shelter, be it windbreaks or shed-like structures keeping cattle dry and braced against wind chills approaching -30° or colder. Wet, cold cattle require significant more energy (i.e. food rations) to maintain body warmth combined with nutritional feed supplements to enhance the available energy needs. Last, they recommended keeping an eye on the body condition of the livestock, as thin cattle have less cold tolerance.
Beyond the ranch, like cattle, I do drink less water, but probably more liquids having a higher proof during the cold months. It goes without saying, I crave the warm shelter of a wood-burning fireplace and just avoid any encounters outside with the wind chill. As for my feed rations, I’m not sure, according to the bathroom scale, that more of it is consumed to provide body heat as opposed to weight. Last, if thin cattle have less cold tolerance then, in comparison, my tolerance shouldn’t be a factor.
With my attitude that we are one day closer to a good rain having been tested throughout the past year, now becomes a significant worry for my 2023 crop planning. In reviewing a drought-monitoring map, the most severe area encompasses the Ogallala Aquifer. Discussions with my tenant-farmer regarding our available groundwater from this same aquifer have brought possibly grain sorghum into our mix in lieu of some corn acres. While this crop is less water intensive, the potential crop yield may not bring the same cash return.
Another salvo into the groundwater availability is that of the state of Kansas and the water officials contemplating a further 20 percent reduction in use of the aquifer. With the distaste of more government intervention, I counter with a recently issued 2022 report from Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District No. 3 (GMD3) that our water well usage was as much as 48 percent less than similar irrigation projects in our region. According to GMD3 data, over the past 10 growing seasons, we have used less or similar amounts of those in this same region, reinforcing my contention that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of land and its resources.
Enjoying the respite from the recent arctic blast, starting 2023 with much more bearable temperatures has given me hope. But, checking my mobile devices for the next two-week weather forecast has dashed some hope with minimal chance for significant moisture. One thing I learned – other than what that switch on my dashboard was – is “weather or not” will continue to happen.