A developing La Niña in the Pacific Ocean could provide favorable conditions for a return of drought to the Central Plains in 2013. That message was delivered to cattlemen by meteorologist Art Douglas, Creighton University, last week in Tampa, Fla., at the Cattle Industry Convention and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Trade Show.

Douglas said drought conditions have improved significantly through the Ohio Valley this winter, but deterioration has been the rule in the Southeast, West Texas and the West Coast.

During the spring of 2013, Douglas expects warm and dry weather will be focused across the Southwest as a strong high pressure ridge builds across the region and pushes the polar jet well north of normal. Across the Midwest, early spring will be warm with normal to slightly above normal precipitation, which should support early field work and planting. By late spring, however, cooler and wetter weather may slow down late planting and early germination of the crop.

Douglas, who has delivered a weather outlook for Cattle Fax for 36 years, was not optimistic for the winter wheat region of the Central Plains. He expects precipitation will remain spotty through June and the potential for a dry May is likely to keep yields well below normal. 

Reviewing various computer models of oceanic conditions, Douglas said developing La Niña conditions could “set up a classic drought pattern in the Southwest and Central Plains.” However, he does not expect summer temperatures as hot as last year, though he is concerned that drought could push eastward toward the Ohio Valley again.

La Niña is an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that lowers sea surface temperature across the equatorial Eastern Pacific Ocean. La Niña conditions typically produce drought in the Southwest and Central Plains of the U.S.

Douglas also said reduced solar activity will slowly cool the planet over the next 30 years. “In three decades, definitely, we’re going to see a cooler climate.”

Dry or even normal moisture conditions could have devastating effects on soil conditions. University of Missouri associate professor of soil science, Randall Miles, says it may take at least two years for crops and soil to recover. His research found that soil in the Midwest is dry down to as deep as 5 feet, where the roots of crops absorb moisture and nutrients.

“I wouldn’t count on a full recovery of soil moisture any time soon,” Miles said. “Even if parts of the Midwest receive a lot of snowfall and rain this spring, it will take time for the moisture to move deeply into the soil where the driest conditions exist.”

In 2012, Miles found that some roots had to go down as much as 8 feet to extract water. Typically, 1 foot of soil holds 2 inches of water. To recharge completely, a fully depleted soil would require about 16 inches of water over normal precipitation amounts.