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Looking To The New Year
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Now that it’s officially 2014, what lies ahead for Kansas agriculture? It probably doesn’t take being in the food, fiber, and fuel business to now that the biggest question for 2014 is the weather or specifically precipitation. As of Christmas Eve, the eastern half of Kansas is rated as abnormally dry with only the southeast corner rated as okay. The western third of the state is rated mostly in severe drought with portions in the extreme range. The part in the middle where Barton County is located is in moderate drought. While not great, this is better than last year at this time.  
Fortunately from now until crops like wheat and canola break dormancy, plant water use is negligible. The negative is that dry soil, especially without snow cover, leaves wheat and canola vulnerable to stand loss from a combination of cold temperatures and desiccation. The lack of soil moisture also allows soils to cool more than if they are moist. Lack of moisture slows winter crops when they break dormancy and for cool season grasses. Even normal precipitation for the area from now till March would only result in about 1.5 inches of moisture. Still the area is much better off than a year ago and as long as temperatures aren’t well above normal, winter crops can hang on. The wheat most vulnerable to these dry conditions is the late planted most poorly established wheat without a well-developed root system. More developed wheat root systems have a better chance of tapping into moisture deeper in the soil profile. Less developed wheat is also more vulnerable to pest pressure and proper pest scouting and treatment are important for this crop to finish as is proper fertility.  
The NOAA three-month outlook provides the Great Plains an equal chance of below, normal or above normal precipitation. The temperature outlook for the same period is the same. Some models have predicted above normal precipitation for the area during 2014 and that will be necessary not only to finish the crops planted fall 2013 but for spring planted crops this year.  
If conditions don’t improve, dryland producers may want to consider several things.
• Minimize or if practical eliminate tillage to save moisture.
• Soil test for pH and nutrients to optimize the chemical environment for the crop.
• Plant as early as practical to avoid the worst of the summer heat/drought.
• Consider the allocation of acreage between corn, soybean, milo, and feed crops. Milo and feed crops in drier hotter conditions stand a better chance of producing an economically viable crop.
• Consider shorter maturities for summer crops to decrease the amount of moisture needed for vegetative growth.
• Be extremely aggressive in pest management programs. Moisture stress not only exacerbates the negative effects of pest pressure but makes plants more susceptible to pests.
Hopefully, the moisture will come and weather forecasting is a bit of an inexact science so it’s much too early to panic. And if last year taught us anything, today’s crops can take a beating and still produce viable yields.