“Next Year Country” is more than a place; it's a state of mind. Usually tied to a hope for more rain, it's kept generations of ranchers and farmers from pulling up stakes to look for greener digs.

But, there's always that sinking feeling the start of the next drought is only a day away. Problem is, lately, drought seems to hit all too often. Just pick a place and time.

The Texas Agricultural Extension Service attributed $1.75 billion in direct losses to the 1998-1999 drought — approaching the $1.95 billion loss from the record drought of 1996. In that episode, 66 of Oklahoma's 77 counties were declared disaster areas. Officials estimated the state's ag-related losses at $2 billion.

In May 2000, following the warmest winter on record, the National Weather Service estimated half the nation was in the grip of a drought. More than three million acres of national forests burned. Oddly though, the 1999-2000 Midwest drought was replaced by the sixth wettest and 28th coolest June in 106 years. But moderate to severe drought hit the Midwest, Great Plains and Mississippi River Valley again in 2002 and 2003.

As early as May 1, 2004, 318 counties in 11 states had been designated as primary drought disaster areas. By August, 1,596 counties across 32 states had earned the distinction. Among the hardest hit was Utah where, after six consecutive years of below-average rainfall, its ag economy lost an estimated $133 million.

In Wyoming, a statewide drought that began in spring 2000 is still impacting the state. Old timers say creeks and springs that didn't dry up in the 1930s and 1950s are dry today.

While drought is most common in the West (see Figure 1), it's certainly not exclusive to that region. In 2002, USDA declared 59 Alabama counties and 43 Louisiana parishes as drought disasters. The same year, drought cut a huge swath from Maine to Georgia.

At its peak, the 1987-1989 drought covered 36% of the U.S. — compared to the 1930s' Dust Bowl drought, which covered 70% in its worst year. The 1980s' drought wasn't only the costliest drought ($39 billion), but the most expensive U.S. natural disaster.

USDA's Economic Research Service says the 2001-2002 drought cost cattle and sheep producers nearly $103 million in lost gross receipts in 2001, and $583 million in 2002. That doesn't include increases in operating expenses estimated at $51 million in 2001 and $415 million in 2002.

To help stabilize agriculture and rural economies, drought designations have long meant federal assistance. Nationally, in fiscal year 2003, 1,479 emergency loans totaling nearly $95.7 million were made to eligible producers. Last year, Congress provided $2.9 billion in drought assistance.

What's “normal” weather?

“Normal” weather is defined as a 30-year average of any meteorological element. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, NC, is the nation's official keeper of weather and climate records. The previously used set of normals spanned from 1961-1990. NCDC is in the process of releasing new data for the 1971-2000 period.

By comparing today's weather norms with records analyzed from proxy sources, scientists can study climate trends far beyond the 100-year-old records provided by instruments. Tree ring studies, ice core sampling, soil layering, pollen deposits, lake and dune sediments, and records in archaeological remains all provide clues to ancient drought periods.

Historic droughts occurred under a range of naturally varying climate conditions, say authors of “Drought: A Paleo Perspective,” a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Paleoclimatology Program. Droughts the magnitude of those in the 1930s, '50s and '80s occurred in central North America several times each century the past 300-400 years. Many appear to have been more severe than any of the 20th century droughts.

Additionally, NOAA scientists say the average annual U.S. temperature rose by almost 1° F. in the last 100 years. Precipitation, meanwhile, increased by 5-10%, mostly due to localized heavy downpours — a trend most apparent over the past few decades.

Is the globe warming?

Scientists with the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) predict warming this century will increase significantly over anytime in the past century. They say U.S. temperatures will rise an average of 5-10° F — more than the projected global increase.

In their draft report, “Climate Change Impacts on the U.S.,” the team says rising average temperatures are very likely to be associated with faster evaporation of water and more extreme precipitation — leading to greater frequency of alternating extreme wet and dry conditions. They predict dire impacts of climate change; for example, the Rocky Mountain alpine meadows may disappear altogether while savanna and grassland could overtake Southeast forests.

They also forecast international shifts in food supply and demand patterns. Meanwhile, changes in water resources available for power generation, transportation, cities and agriculture will likely raise potentially delicate diplomatic issues with both Canada and Mexico.

GCRP team members say some of the projected climate changes and their impacts will develop slowly while others will be nearer term and more noticeable.

“The surprising finding in our analysis is climate change as it affects agriculture may well be beneficial to the U.S. economy through the next century,” says team member John Reilly, Cambridge, MA. “It will, however, create winners and losers and it may well be the case that some types of agriculture will become non-viable in some areas under climate change.”

A leading critic of this and other climate change reports is the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). It says there's contradictory data and disagreement on the magnitude of what effect greenhouse gases cause — and the relative contribution of human vs. natural causes.

AFBF policy suggests that to meet the numerical limits on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions prescribed by the Kyoto Treaty, new and major taxes or increases in the costs of fuel, electricity, fertilizer and farm chemicals must be implemented. Economic studies by AFBF and other independent sources project these new costs could reduce net farm income significantly, disadvantaging U.S. farmers and ranchers in international trade.

Back in “next year country”

Last winter, in a region not normally prone to drought, at least 1,300 producers in one irrigation district on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains were hoping for more snow pack. But by early March, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire had declared a statewide drought emergency. Subsequently, the Ellensburg, WA-based Kittitas Reclamation District board of directors set this year's water allotment at 30% of normal.

In Montana, a state hard-hit by ongoing drought, last year ranchers bought more hay, leased more grass, culled cows and weaned calves early, according to a survey conducted by Montana State University and the Montana Feed Association. Statewide, beef production income is down, albeit buffered by today's higher cattle prices. After seven years of drought, ranchers said:

  • 75% reduced cow herd size;

  • 74% fed hay longer than normal;

  • 65% bought more hay than usual;

  • 27% grazed Conservation Reserve Program land;

  • 50% weaned calves early last year;

  • 60% kept fewer heifer replacements; and

  • 40% hauled water to their livestock.

Narrative responses indicate ranchers are still clinging to the “next year” mentality.

“We pray the good prices for cattle hold,” one rancher says. “This year will make or break ranching as we know it.”

And, as areas of the state received “normal” mid-spring precipitation, one hopeful rancher says, “We haven't had a good start for our grass in several years.”

Well, maybe for that rancher, this year is that next year he's been looking for.

What is drought?

U.S. Drought Monitor data is used by federal agencies to establish drought disaster designations. Drought is defined by its duration, and weather experts separate drought into three stages.

The first stage is a “meteorological drought” — reduced precipitation from “average” levels over a given period of time. The second is “agricultural drought” — when soil moisture is deficient enough to stress plants and reduce biomass. The final stage is “hydrological drought” — when surface flows into reservoirs and lakes are observed.