Forecast has U.S. feedlot owner preparing for drought

Weather watch Long-term weather forecasts show conflicting assessments for Western Canada this spring and summer

BANFF, Alta. — J.D. Alexander’s corn harvest was 60 percent of normal last year.


It left him short of feed grain but also short of optimism if long-range weather forecasts for continued drought in the United States are correct.


The wells at his Nebraska feedlot are drawn down, and he is looking to buy more feed than usual. 


“We are short of feed for what we would normally produce,” said the past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.


“At the end of the season, our water was a little bit challenging for irrigating. When you are watering the crops, your water levels lower and you have to adjust your wells,” he said. 


Sixty-seven percent of the U.S. is in a drought that extends from Texas to South Dakota and is moving toward the Rocky Mountains.


“We have set the stage for a very dry season on the Plains,” said Art Douglas, climatologist and professor emeritus with Creighton University in Nebraska.


Canada is in a better position, he told the Alberta Beef Industry Conference held in Banff Feb. 20-22. 


He bases his long-term forecasts on sea surface temperatures, historical data, wind patterns and other global events. 


Surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are cooling, which indicates the return of La Nina and drought for much of the U.S. 


“Anytime it is cold from Alaska to Hawaii to the equator, Western Canada tends to be wetter than normal,” he said. 


However, current forecasts from international weather and climate agencies are offering contradictory assessments of current conditions.


“I don’t think the models know what is happening right now,” he said. 


Douglas believes the world is in a transition period and shifting toward La Nina conditions that favour drought for the American Plains. 


“This winter’s forecast going into the spring and summer does not have a strong confidence level that we would like to see at this time of year,” he said. 


He thinks Western Canada is heading into a cool spring with adequate moisture levels because of extensive snow cover. Assessments of snow cover for the southern prairie provinces show it is holding 10 to 15 centimetres worth of moisture and as much as 20 cm in northern reaches of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.


However, southern Alberta from Calgary to Lethbridge is drier because there is little snow.


British Columbia and western Alberta can expect a hot summer while the central Prairies should experience near normal temperatures. Central Alberta could find itself dried out, but slightly more precipitation is forecast for Saskatchewan and Manitoba. 


Douglas is also warning of a cooler climate over the next three decades based on analysis of weak sunspot activity.


The world could experience conditions closer to what was recorded nearly 400 years ago during a period called the Little Ice Age. Sunspots were scarce between 1600 and 1715, and cold winters in England and France were the norm.


Sunspots have an 11 year cycle, with the last maximum peak reached in 2001-02. Less activity means there is less energy from the sun to warm the oceans. 


“The sun is starting to act differently,” Douglas said.


“The next sunspot maximum will be lower than the one we have now, and we will see the oceans cool with the potential for a cooler climate.”