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Drought severity boosted





Continuing drought conditions this spring have prompted the National Drought Mitigation Center to put both Ellis and Russell counties into the extreme drought category.

The bright red bull's-eye also includes portions of Trego, Rooks, Ness, Rush and Osborne counties. It's one step away from the most severe category -- an exceptional drought.

"I did look at that this morning," said Bob Gillen, in charge of the three western Kansas agricultural research centers in Hays, Colby and Garden City.

Of late, he's frequently been called on to talk about the drought in meetings across western Kansas.

"I don't think it's past due," Gillen said of putting the two counties in the extreme drought category. "But I think it's accurate.

"We're in just a little bit of a hole."

Conditions in Kansas deteriorated in the past week, with continued dry weather and sharply warmer temperatures, the drought center reported.

In addition to Russell and Ellis counties, the extreme drought category continues in the two western-most tiers of counties.

Approximately 38 percent of the lower 48 states remain in a moderate drought or worse, the drought center reported.

Gillen said he wouldn't be surprised to see the gap between the Kansas areas close ranks in short order.

The extreme drought, he said, represents a one-in-20-year drought.

"The bad thing is we've had that one-in-20-year drought the last three years," Gillen said.

Midland Marketing manager Vance Westhusin doesn't disagree with the decision to move the region into the extreme drought category.

Every day, Westhusin either is seeing the adverse effects of the drought on the area wheat crop or someone's talking about it.

In fact, wheat prices are rallying, topping $7 a bushel as growing conditions and the outlook for the crop worsens.

"They're going backwards everyday," Westhusin said of the wheat fields in the area.

That's been the case since temperatures skyrocketed April 10, reaching a high of 91 degrees, prompting the crop to start growing and using water. Temperatures again shot up to 85 Sunday.

Fluctuating temperatures, bouncing up and down from 91 on April 10 to a low of 20 degrees Tuesday, has put the crop behind normal, perhaps as much as three weeks.

That might prove to be the saving grace for the crop, which would have been especially susceptible to freezing temperatures if it would have been jointing.

How much longer the wheat can hold on is anyone's guess.

"The crop is not lost," Gillen said of wheat. "The conditions are definitely deteriorating."

"We need precipitation ASAP," said Stacy Campbell, Ellis County's Extension agriculture agent.

He's already seeing leaves on the crop curling and showing signs of turning blue, good indicators of a drought-stressed crop.

"Once we get into 80-degree days, it's going to go backwards consistently," he said.

The drought's causing other problems for the wheat as well, prompting army cutworms to abandon pastures in search of green plants.

They're apparently picking wheat fields and munching away on the crop and leaving brown, barren spots behind.

Campbell said he's not yet seen any signs of cutworms in wheat locally, but there have been reports in the Thomas County area.

He's found instances of the brown wheat mite, but said that's not a problem if it rains.

"Definitely, moisture is the big deal," Campbell said.