KANSAS CITY — Late December snowfall across the western Plains that snarled travel plans for thousands during the holidays and wreaked havoc for livestock farmers has created the best winter weather conditions in memory for hard red winter wheat growers.
Precipitation totals in portions of western Kansas were as great as 8 inches in areas that have been plagued by dryness in recent years. As impressive as rain and snowfall totals were at several stations, most beneficial was the span of the coverage, cutting through the heart of winter wheat growing areas of the Southwest. In Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Colorado, few significant wheat-growing areas received less than 2 inches of precipitation from rain and/or snow in the 30 days ended Jan. 11.
While particularly outstanding given the dry conditions typical in recent years, the wet, snowy weather in areas of Colorado and western Kansas was remarkable for the region by any measure.
For instance, the 3.21 inches of precipitation that fell in Dodge City, Kas., Dec. 28-31 was the second-wettest December storm there in recorded history, eclipsed only by a storm in 1877. The late December storm followed one in Dodge City Dec. 19-21 that yielded more than an inch of precipitation. Indicative of how dry this area usually is, it was the first time since 1918 that Dodge City experienced two separate storms yielding more than 1 inch of precipitation during the month of December.
Affirming and applauding the extraordinary snowfall in Colorado was Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee in Centennial, Colo. The same two storms that struck Kansas hit Colorado in a two-week period, the first dumping nearly 24 inches of snow across northern Colorado and lighter amounts in the south. The second storm left another 12 inches of snow in the north and progressively more in the south, ranging to as much as 40 inches.
"I’ve been in this business 25 years, and I can’t remember any two snow storms like this," Mr. Hanavan said. "Our biggest problem since drought began in 1999 is that we have planted under favorable conditions, but we haven’t had beneficial moisture in the winter and spring. We keep running out of moisture before summer rains. I can’t say this will make the crop, but we were in good shape before the snow."
In late November, the 2007 Colorado wheat crop was rated 74% good to excellent by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Kansas crop was rated 51% good or excellent and 41% fair.
"The snow is melting and will soak in gradually," Mr. Hanavan said. "It also provides protection to the wheat crop from the cold. Our growers are pretty excited. Most of them can’t even tell you how long it has been since we’ve had winter moisture like this that has covered the whole eastern plains of Colorado. Both of these storms covered the entire area."
The weather also strained the memory of growers in western Kansas. While Kansas snowfall totals generally did not match those in Colorado, snow in Kansas was considerable and preceded in both storms by heavy rains.
"The week before Christmas, 1.5 inches of rain were followed by about 6 inches of snow on top," said Dale Erwin, manager of the Syracuse Coop, a 3-million-bu elevator west of Dodge City. "In the second storm, beginning Dec. 29, we had 3 inches of rain, 3 inches of ice and then 10 to 12 inches of snow, even more in some areas. There was very little runoff.
"I spoke with a grower north of town who dug through 18 inches of snow. He said there is a crust of ice on the ground and just mud beneath it. It puts our wheat, which is dormant, in tremendous shape."
Asked the last time western Kansas received such a beneficial winter storm, Mr. Erwin said he did not know.
"I have a guy in my office who is 75, and he doesn’t remember the last time he saw this much moisture," he said. "Possibly never."
Mr. Erwin and others were quick to point out that while conditions in January were the best in years, several months and the spring growing season must pass before "we put the wheat in the bin." Still, he said the benefit of winter moisture should not be understated.
"I had an older gentleman tell me something his father had told him — that if you have 5 feet of subsoil moisture going into the spring, you can raise a wheat crop on nothing more than a few heavy dews. We have a lot more than five feet of subsoil moisture now.
"I believe the most critical thing for our wheat crop is having subsoil moisture in the growing season in the spring, and we have it. It’s a hardy crop, it can endure a lot if it has the foundation and subsoil moisture to start out."
The snow cover offered great protection to the crop in advance of an Arctic front that approached the Southwest late last week. Even after days and days of melting, snow depths on Jan. 11 in Colorado were 18 inches in Kit Carson and 15 inches in Lamar. In Kansas, snow depths were 10 inches in Goodland and 5 inches in Colby. Farther east, where snowfall was lighter, some concerns were expressed about the crop’s vulnerability to the approaching cold weather.
A meteorologist addressing members of the Kansas City Board of Trade Jan. 11 forecast an additional 3 inches to 10 inches of snow for western Nebraska and western Kansas as well as eastern Colorado for the following weekend. Central Kansas and eastern areas were expected to receive a wintry mix of precipitation, including rain, sleet and freezing rain. The panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas were expected to miss out on significant precipitation.
The meteorologist also forecast a continuation of the recent weather pattern, albeit with colder temperatures, with precipitation events occurring every 10 days or so.