The Perfect Storm

May 1, 2017

By Jayce Winters

We often hear terrible circumstances that yield the worst results referred to as “the perfect storm,” but where exactly does that phrase come from?

This weekend in Western Kansas, we found out.

Blizzards are bad. Blizzards with 50 mph winds and zero visibility are worse. All of this, plus a foot of snow with temperatures holding right at 32 degrees on the last day of April, you have the perfect storm. Let me tell you why these elements working together made this event more devastating than your average winter blizzard.

Nature has a wonderful system of helping various species of plants and animals survive and thrive in places like Western Kansas with four highly extreme seasons. Now, we’re never going to grow things like oranges or avocados, but our climate is very well suited for growing things like wheat and cattle. However, when the natural cycle is disturbed, it can cause problems for the species which are meant to thrive here. We call this, unseasonably __________ (fill in the blank). Today that word is “cold.” This means that no, 32 degrees is not cold for the plants and animals of Western Kansas. They face much more frigid temperatures at different times of the year. And that is the key. The plants and animals are not used to waking up to 32 degree temperatures under a blanket of snow on the first day of May. This is where the term “unseasonable” comes in to play. It means that it’s not necessarily an obscure variable on its own, but coupled with other circumstances, such as time of year, it becomes devastating: a perfect storm.

These unseasonably cold temperatures had the potential to cause a number of negative effects on Western Kansas agriculture, and only time will tell the magnitude of these.

Cattle

Cattle are a hardy species, which acclimate very well to their environment. Cattle can be raised in every corner of this country and basically every corner of the world depending on their specific genetics. But Western Kansas is one of the best places to raise many types of cattle, largely due to our primarily dry, arid climate. One of the elements that helps cattle in our area thrive is their ability to acclimate to the different seasons that were mentioned previously. However, because of this, cattle had already begun to adjust to the spring weather, and their bodies were not prepared for the violent winter blast they experienced. This can be extremely stressful to them, especially to younger, less developed calves. Ranchers were working all through the storm to keep feed available to their cattle, which helps them maintain a stable body temperature. Though the death loss as a result of the storm may be extreme for some ranchers, the hard work they did to help keep their cattle warm and fed likely made a huge difference in the overall outcome.

Wheat

As you may know, Kansas is the largest wheat producing state in the country, and last year, Kansas raised over a quarter of the nation’s hard red winter wheat. Wheat is a unique crop that makes use of multiple seasons to lead to the most productive harvest. Wheat is planted in the late summer to early fall and is not harvested until the next summer, so it stays in the ground for a long time, including through the harsh winter months. That is no problem for the wheat, because it actually has to go through a process called vernalization, where the temperature has to be below a certain level for an extended period of time part way through the growing cycle. Then once the spring temperatures begin to rise, the wheat begins to mature again going through stages knows as jointing, booting, and heading leading up to harvest. Most of the Western Kansas crop had reached one of the final two stages, leaving it vulnerable to freeze injury. The extended periods of extreme temperatures and snow have likely had a significant damage on the wheat crop across the area.

Corn

Corn planting for the 2017 season is currently underway. Many farmers’ plantings were interrupted by the winter blast, while others may have already been done. This poses a problem as well, because corn is a warm season crop, which can be severely damaged by too low of temperatures, or it may not even germinate if the soil temperature is too cold. It may be several weeks before we know the impact of this storm on the corn crop.

There are other factors affected by a late storm like this, but these are three that you may not realize are so heavily impacted.

Cattle Empire is currently juggling these situations and more. We are immensely thankful for our hardworking team members who care about the cattle and the land and are working to get all operations back to normal. Like the other livestock producers across the area, our teams were on site throughout the weekend to provide cattle with all available resources to keep them warm and fed. Despite their hard work, there will still be significant losses at Cattle Empire and across the area.

We know you hear this a lot, but whenever a devastating weather event happens, please think about the people who are growing your food. Think about the people who are working to get your power up and running and the people who are clearing your roads. Think about the people who are ready to respond to emergencies, made even more dangerous by the inclement weather conditions. Think about the people working at the hospital, whose shifts should be over, but continue working to serve the people of their community.

We are so blessed to live in a place like Western Kansas, where the weather may be tough, but the people are tougher.

Photo courtesy of Taylor Freburg – Garden City, KS

Photo courtesy of Christy Warkentin – Dodge City, KS

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