COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Below-average precipitation during the fall and winter has contributed to worsening drought conditions across most of Missouri, a situation which has left the state vulnerable entering spring and summer, a University of Missouri climatologist said.

"Right now we're working without our safety net," said Pat Guinan of the MU Commercial Agriculture program. "Fall and winter precipitation typically recharge the soil profile and increase pond, stream and river levels. Without that precipitation, it becomes imperative that spring rains come and give us the collateral we need as we enter the summer season."

Unfortunately, climatology reveals no strong indicators of what might lie ahead, Guinan explained.

"On the plus side, there is no trend indicating that a dry fall and winter will produce a dry spring or a dry summer," he said. "Looking at the driest Marches and Aprils on record gives no indication of dry summers to follow."

Guinan said the spring-summer precipitation relationship isn't seen until the end of May when weather patterns tend to become more stagnant, summer-like and may persist or reemerge in June and July.

"Average rainfall in May doesn't tell us much, but there is a tendency that an exceptionally wet May will trend toward a wetter than normal summer and that an exceptionally dry May will trend toward a drier than normal summer," he said.

During December, January and February, rainfall deficits continued to accumulate across the state. The most extreme dryness occurred in southwest Missouri where rainfall averaged 4 to 5 inches below normal, Guinan said. Central and southeast Missouri averaged 3 to 4 inches below normal, and the northern third of the state averaged 1 to 3 inches below normal.

"Joplin has been the bull's eye for the drought in Missouri, where 11 of the past 12 months have received below normal rainfall," Guinan said.
"The precipitation deficit is now approaching 20 inches, or less than 60 percent of normal."

Eldon Cole, an MU Extension livestock specialist in the southwest region for 40 years, said the bone-dry winter is the worst he's seen.

"Farmers are convinced that we are going to have another Dust Bowl, and they are pretty gloomy," he said. "It's the worst pastures and lowest pond levels I've seen. Some producers have been using piped-in water as part of their intensive grazing program. Ponds or either flat dry or half way down."

Guinan softened the gloom by saying that the 12-month period from March
2005 to February 2006 ranks as only the fourth driest March-to-February on record in Joplin.

"The mother of all droughts in southwest Missouri occurred from 1952 to
1956 when precipitation in Joplin fell more than 81 inches below normal in a five-year period," Guinan said. "Fortunately, we're no where near that right now."

Cole recommended that producers fertilize pastures with good stands, even if the grass is short. "Fertilize as much as you can afford to," he said. "I know it is costly, but you will get some response from it.
Don't skimp too much; you know it might just rain."

A saving grace for cash-strapped producers is that cattle prices remain high. "Producers should go ahead and sell now if they have any culling capacity," Cole said.

Many Missouri areas set record precipitation lows in February.
Springfield and Kansas City both experienced their driest-ever Februarys. Columbia tied its record of 0.11 inches.

According to the latest drought monitor report from the National Drought Mitigation Center, a corridor of dryness extends from Lake Michigan southeast through Illinois, across Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, and west into New Mexico and Arizona.

Extreme to severe drought persists in southwest Missouri. The northeast region of the state is under moderate to severe drought, which "goes back to last spring when northeast, east-central and southeast Missouri were worse off than southwest Missouri," Guinan said.

Central Missouri also is experiencing moderate drought, with abnormally dry conditions across northwest Missouri and the Ozarks region extending to the southeast part of the state.

"The good news is that spring is our wet season, with the months of April, May and June providing nearly a third of annual precipitation totals," Guinan said. "So far, the long-range outlooks are showing no indicators that spring will be dry."

Also encouraging is the six-to-10 day outlook from the National Weather Service Climate Predication Center, which forecasts above normal precipitation for the second week of March with above normal temperatures.

Soils across the state are dry, and it will be critical to get moisture to re-supply the soil profile, Guinan said.

"Hopefully a wet weather pattern will establish itself soon in order for cool-season grasses to get off to a good start in our pastures," he said. "Despite the precipitation deficits, the 2006 growing season can still be a productive one, and hopefully, we won't have to rely solely on timely rainfall events through the summer. It would be nice to get our soils and our above-ground moisture sources recharged this spring.

"If we have a spring like last year, then I'll be worried."

SOURCE: University of Missouri Extension news release.