National Drought Mitigation Center


U.S. Crops in Drought, April: Winter wheat, rangeland and pastures in good shape

May 5, 2016

By Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist, Office of the Chief Economist, World Agricultural Outlook Board, Washington, D.C.

During the four-week period ending on May 3, 2016, contiguous U.S. drought coverage decreased to 14.56 percent—down 2.15 percentage points. Since reaching a 5½-year minimum of 12.41 percent on March 15, drought coverage rose to a spring maximum of 17.75 percent of the Lower 48 states on April 12 before falling back to the current coverage of 14.56 percent. Most of the increase and subsequent decrease in drought coverage has been related to the development of short-term drought in parts of the central U.S., followed by wetter weather starting in mid-April. There has also been some further erosion of drought from northern California to the northern Intermountain West.

A mid- to late-April pattern change brought desperately needed precipitation to the Great Plains and pushed warm, showery weather into the Midwestern and mid-Atlantic States. The Plains’ precipitation reversed a short-term drying trend, greatly benefiting winter wheat and putting an end to a spate of wildfires and episodes of blowing dust in Oklahoma and neighboring states. By May 3, just 3 percent of the U.S. winter wheat production area was affected by drought, down from 19 percent on April 12. Based on USDA conditions reported for May 1, the U.S. winter wheat crop was rated 61 percent good to excellent and 7 percent very poor to poor. A year ago, when 37 percent of the wheat production area was in drought, the crop was rated just 43 percent good to excellent and 20 percent very poor to poor. During the last two decades, only 1998, 1999, 2005, and 2010 featured higher early-May crop ratings for U.S. winter wheat.

Northern California continued to experience incremental improvement from long-term drought, while southern California entered a fifth year of drought. On May 3, nearly 90 percent of California remained in drought, down from 97 percent as recently as March 8. However, California’s coverage of exceptional drought (D4) has fallen from 46 to 21 percent since Oct. 1, 2015. Farther north, drought in Idaho and Washington has been eradicated since Oct. 1—down from 86 and 100 percent, respectively.

On May 3, drought was affecting just 10 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory, down from an April 12 peak of 19 percent. Similarly, only 8 percent of the nation’s hay area was in drought, down from an April 12 peak of 12 percent. With the year’s first USDA condition rating on May 1, U.S. rangeland and pastures started 2016 in the fifth-best condition during the 22-year period of record—rated as 58 percent good to excellent and just 10 percent very poor to poor. Conditions were better to start the year in 1995, 1998, 1999, and 2010. All but 1999 featured El Niño in progress as the year began.

On May 3, the nation’s corn and soybean production areas remained mostly free of drought – less than 1 percent drought coverage for both commodities. Despite widespread showers in late April, 45 percent of the intended U.S. corn acreage had been planted by May 1, well ahead of the 5-year average of 30 percent. Soybean planting was also ahead of schedule – 8 percent complete by May 1, compared to the 5-year average of 6 percent.

Weather outlook:  During the next few days, an atmospheric blocking pattern over North America will favor cool, showery conditions in parts of the eastern and western U.S., while warm, dry weather will prevail across the nation’s mid-section. In the middle and northern Atlantic States, additional rainfall should total 1 to 2 inches. Meanwhile, Western totals could reach 1 to 3 inches in the Sierra Nevada and 2 to 4 inches or more across the northern Intermountain West. However, most (or all) of the precipitation will bypass the lower Southeast and the southern Rockies. During the weekend and early next week, dry weather will gradually return to the Northeast, while rain (locally 1 to 2 inches or more) will overspread portions of the Plains, mid-South, and western Corn Belt.

PLEASE NOTE: The next issuance of this emailed drought update will be Thursday, June 2, 2016, unless conditions warrant an earlier release. The “U.S. Crops in Drought” products will be produced on a weekly basis, and can be viewed online:

Archived “U.S. Crops in Drought” files can be downloaded: