Arkansas went from zero percent of its area being in drought to 98.45 percent in one year, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map.

A year ago, the state was recovering from the record rainfall of 2009.

The new drought map, released March 24, shows 17.37 percent of the state having extreme drought, all in the southern tier of counties, including all or parts of Union, Ashley, Bradley, Calhoun, Chicot, Cleveland, Columbia, Desha, Drew, Hempstead, Lafayette, Lincoln, Miller, Nevada, Ouachita, and Pike.

The good news is that Arkansas still has zero counties classified as “exceptional,” the most intense drought level.

“Drought expanded in southeastern Arkansas and west-central Mississippi in response to 90-day precipitation totals that are less than 30 percent of normal” which means deficits of 10 inches or more, according to the National Drought Summary issued March 22. “Soil moisture was also ranked in the lowest fifth percentile.”

Only 1.55 percent of the state has no drought rating – an area that encompasses much of Benton County and the most northwestern slice of its neighbor to the south, Washington County.

That’s bad news for the rest of the state.

“Irrigation reservoirs are not filling back up as quickly as needed which will have consequences later this summer for rice farmers dependent on surface water,” said Mike Daniels, Extension water quality and nutrition management specialist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.

It’s so dry in parts of Prairie County, in Arkansas’ Delta, that a few reservoirs “have wheat and ryegrass growing in the bottom,” Brent Griffin, Arkansas County Extension staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said on March 25. “Reservoirs on average are only 60 percent full, which takes into consideration that a few are close to 100 percent full.

Storms on the evening of March 27 dropped from .8 to 1.2 inches.

“All the worked ground soaked up the rain with some standing water on non-tilled soil,” Griffin said. “We did have some hail that came across the mid-southern part of the county … hard to tell if any damage yet on wheat. The hail was mainly pea-sized.”

Keith Perkins, Lonoke County Extension agent, said Monday that winter wheat at this point in the growing season was resilient and small hail was unlikely to do much damage. He had received no calls from producers Monday morning.

“No news is good news,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s typically how it works here.”

In southern Arkansas, “many of the private producers are seeing die-offs of patches of pine forest,” said Jaret Rushing, Calhoun County Extension agent. “Due to the unruly stress and heat from the past year-and-a-half, the trees have lost much of their vigor and, in turn, are more susceptible to all types of damages and pest infestation.

“One of the major concerns among many private landowners here is that there has not been a severe outbreak in the Southern Pine Beetle in a while. With the larger trees still standing due to low market prices over the past several years; these trees are highly susceptible to beetle infestation and other diseases such as red heart.”

Chad Norton, Lincoln County Extension staff chair, said some of his county’s corn growers are waiting on rain before planting. Others, who are planning large acreages, are moving ahead. “A good 1-inch rain will allow for the remainder of the corn to be planted and get what was planted dry to come up. From the dust blowing behind tractors in the field and trucks on the turnrows, it looks like August.

“Stock ponds and irrigation reservoirs are the lowest I have seen in the 13 years I have been here. We are going to need some heavy rains to fill them up … and several more heavy rains to re-fill them completely.” 

In northeastern Arkansas, an area classified as “abnormally dry,” conditions seemed to be improving.

Dave Freeze, Mississippi County Extension staff chair, said that in the last few weeks, moisture had been an impediment to planting. “We have had a few rains this winter and are OK on moisture. It did get dry enough for corn and rice planting to start this week. We had a light shower this morning and expect for rain in the next 24 hours to put farmers back out of the field.”

In nearby Clay County on the Missouri border, the improvement was noticeable, said Andy Vangilder, Extension staff chair. “We were extremely dry until the last couple of months. We received about 6 inches of rain that filled our ponds and replenished our topsoil moisture to the point that we just got in the field … in the last week or so.

“Got two-tenths of an inch so far today and still sprinkling around,” he said on March 25. “That brought planting and field prep to a halt.”

For more information on crop, timber and livestock production, contact your county Extension office or visit www.uaex.edu.