2019 Colorado Grazing Preview: Good Forage Year Expected

Colorado ranchers and climatologists are relieved that a large improvement in critical moisture occurred from snowpack during this past El Niño winter and early spring.  However, they’re cautiously optimistic and carefully watching weather developments; in hopes that Colorado’s water supply continues receiving periods of late season snowfall and ample rains.

“This year has been wetter than normal over the Colorado River Basin, particularly in the significant, high elevation areas that accumulate most of the snowpack that results in runoff during Spring. March was exceptionally wet in the western half of Colorado, where many SNOTEL stations report precipitation was the wettest, or among the wettest, on record,” said Paul Miller, Service Coordination Hydrologist; NOAA Colorado Basin River Forecast Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.  These wet conditions have led to spring runoff forecasts that are typically around 120% of normal.  Miller and other drought experts provided this information during a ‘live’ webinar, in late April.

In the Upper Colorado River Basin, precipitation so far this year is well above average throughout Colorado and Central Utah, and near average in the northern portion of the basin in Southern Wyoming.

Percent of Average Precipitation Since October 1

Unlike 2018, most of Colorado has been wet for the 2019 Water Year that starts Oct. 1 2018 and runs to Sep 30, 2019.

Officials also reported positive recent developments but cautioned that the Colorado River Basin is not out of the woods…yet. “While we are pleased to see the above average snowpack conditions in the Upper Basin and the improvement in the inflow forecast, which may lessen the chance of shortage in 2020, we are reminded that one  near- or above average year will not end the ongoing extended drought experienced in the Colorado River Basin, nor is likely to substantially reduce the current risk facing the Basin,” said the Bureau of Reclamation, through a statement.  The Colorado River Basin continues to experience its worst drought in recorded history, and the period from 2000 through 2018 was the driest 19-year period in more than 100 years of record keeping.      

A livestock specialist told LivestockWx.com that currently, things could go either way – and that Colorado has been on a roller coaster of drought since the early 2000’s with much time spent in D4 and D3 drought categories during three major cycles. 

“Most recently, 2018 hit the western part of the state and a sizeable portion of eastern Colorado.   As a headwaters state that depends on agriculture and irrigation of crops and forage throughout the region, this sort of alpine drought hits twice; once in the growing season when rainfall is short and the second in the winter when a lack of snowfall limits water storage reserves. If this sort of drought continues into the next year, severe and irreparable harm could come of the agriculture industry,” advised Terry R. Fankhauser, Executive Vice President; Colorado Cattlemen’s Association.

If all the meteorological signs align, Colorado will have a good forage production year from native grasses and harvested forages

Terry Fankhauser, Executive Vice President, Colorado Cattlemen's Association

Much Too Early Map of Areas Greening Up Based on Satellite Imagery

The below map is from the MODIS Terra Satellite and the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI.  The average value was taken between March 11 and May 9, 2019 compared to the entire data set from 2002 to present for March – May.  Southeast Colorado in particular is seeing plant growth 130% above average, or more, of what would normally be expected for this time of year.

On a positive note, Fankhauser says, thankfully, the winter of 2019 has diminished the impacts of this drought with a several decades-strong snowpack in the mountains and good moisture in the Plains. “In a high mountain desert like Colorado, this will bring a green and growing start to spring forage.  Several key elements exist in order to maximize the snowpack and moisture that fell during the winter months. The first is that the snow does not melt too soon. So warm winds, dust settling on the snowpack and quick warm-up (could, in that case) spell concern, (as snowpack would melt and run out of the state too quickly.) Conversely, a gradual warming with adequate additional moisture (would) stretch snow melt out for the better part of the summer, and the Plains will benefit from the continuous irrigation water and likely rainfall,” advised Fankhauser.

Evaporative demand has been well below normal since March, which means much of the precipitation that has been received has been able to stay in the plants and soils.

Colorado Climatologist Becky Bolinger is also optimistic following the wet El Niño winter and early spring.  “Cooler and wetter El Niño winter and spring conditions were experienced across all of the eastern plains of Colorado. In fact, east of Denver, near Byers and surrounding areas received a record high amount of precipitation for the February-March time period. For March, temperatures were three to six degrees cooler than average across Colorado’s eastern Plains,” said Becky Bolinger, Ph.D., Assistant State Climatologist; Colorado Climate Center, Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science in Fort Collins.

The cool and damp conditions meant that evaporative losses are very low (see evaporative demand image above). “Reports from Kiowa County show top soils are nice and wet, in good condition. Reports from northeast Colorado (near Akron and surrounding areas) are that the cool temperatures mean that the region is slightly behind on growing degree days,” noted Bolinger.  She said winter wheat growth appears slightly behind, but not of concern yet.  Unfortunately, adverse weather conditions can have long-term effects.

“I did hear of an impact of malnourished cattle because of drought last summer, lack of available water and poor grazing lands (around the ‘Four Corners’ area) which has likely contributed to an increased number of calf deaths – like being born already dead,” Bolinger said. She advised others to be aware of this possibility if they experienced prolonged drought conditions last spring and summer.

March brought a high number of precipitation events in northeast Colorado.  In April, mostly dry and warm conditions followed.  “But thanks to the wet start to spring, fire danger and blowing dust have mostly been minimal. I’m sure most farmers have welcomed the drier conditions for field work to begin soon,” added Bolinger.

Colorado’s current status and early indications – are welcome news. “If all the meteorological signs align, Colorado will have a good forage production year from native grasses and harvested forages,” said Fankhauser.  “This will balance out hay prices and stop any herd reductions due to lack of forage.  Optimism is in the air and producers are looking forward to an ongoing spring and mild summer with adequate rainfall.”

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