Last summer, Joey Kuehler was on the roof of his house in Satanta, spraying shingles with a garden hose and watching a large grass fire march toward the small western Kansas town.
Last week, the crop consultant and agronomist for Servi-Tech was marveling at how green the countryside was.
“Anywhere we got a crop up, it just looks phenomenal,” Kuehler said of the winter wheat.
Two storms in the past month brought nearly 3 inches of rain to the area, he said.
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“Those two rains together are more rain than we’d had in the 16 to 18 months prior to that,” Kuehler said. “It’s been a godsend.”
Consistent rain over the past few months has dramatically eased the drought in southern and western Kansas, lifting spirits in an area that has endured dry weather for the past few years.
“It’s quite amazing,” said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist in charge of the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service. “There has been significant rainfall in southwest Kansas recently, and the agricultural drought has been eased considerably. Everything is much greener this year than usual.”
Dodge City has recorded 7.39 inches of rain since Dec. 1, the third-highest total over that stretch since records began being kept more than 100 years ago. Medicine Lodge logged 10.37 inches and Cimarron 8.44 inches.
Combined with persistently warmer-than-normal temperatures this spring, the winter wheat crop is at least two weeks ahead of normal in western and southern Kansas.
“At this rate, we’ll be cutting wheat in the middle of May,” said Dan Cashier, general manager of the Anthony Farmers Cooperative Elevator in Harper County.
One more rain should be enough to bring a nice wheat crop home – barring unusually cold or hot weather, Cashier said.
“If we don’t get hot weather, we’ll be fine,” he said. “If we get hot weather the next month, it’ll cook it.”
Much of western and southern Kansas should see more rain today or later this week, Ruthi said, and long-range forecasts aren’t projecting damaging frosts.
The return of the rains in parched portions of Kansas is reflected in the drought’s retreat over the past nine months. Less than one-half of 1 percent of Kansas – a tiny sliver in the southwest corner – remains in extreme drought, compared to more than 28 percent of the state in late September.
A little more than 11 percent of the state remains in the three worst drought categories, compared to nearly half of Kansas last September.
“The long-term drought is still there,” Ruthi said. “It wouldn’t take a whole lot of hot, dry weather to get us back into significant drought.
“It takes a long time to erase a drought.”
But there’s more good news on the horizon, Ruthi said: Long-range forecasts suggest this summer won’t be unusually hot and could bring above-normal precipitation.
“It’s helped the attitude of the whole area,” Kuehler said of far western Kansas. “This wheat crop is not made, but at least it’s got a chance. It’s growing and it’s healthy.
“Last year at this time most of the wheat that was seeded hadn’t even sprouted. No wheat, no weeds, no anything.”
Farmers aren’t getting carried away about the rainfall, said Bryan Boroughs, a Servi-Tech crop consultant who lives in Cimarron, between Dodge City and Garden City.
“The word is ‘encouraging,’ ” Boroughs said. “They have a sense of hope now.”