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Drought conditions intensify

If the dry conditions we experienced in Ellis County on the opening weekend of pheasant season are any indication of what's to come, we're in for a lot of trouble. We walked several miles on Nov. 10 and 11 and drove across much of the county and into northern Ness County.

The winter wheat crop looked remarkably well. Fields sported a deep, rich green color. Stands were uniform and wheat heights varied from just peeking out of the rows to four or five inches tall.

The milo crop was a horse of a different color. While the fields were generally flush with stalks, the heads were buried and featured tiny heads ranging from three to five inches in length. The berries were nearly nonexistent and about the size of a pin head if it were round instead of flat -- about the size of a 9 shot in a quail load.

When harvested these micro heads floated through the combine and the machine couldn't do a good job of separating the berry from the rest of the chaff and dried milo leaves. Some of the heads went in the front end of the combine and left the back without any of the berries being separated out and augured up into the grain bin.

This wasn't just my observation, but that of Lance Russell, who was in the swing of milo harvest and also hosted our hunting party on his Ellis County land.

"What I'm cuttin' now is producing less than 10 bushel per acre," Russell told me. "Not a good year."

Instead of filling the combine bin, each and every round like he usually does during a decent harvest, it was taking Russell nearly six trips up and back in his field to fill the bin.

Yes, this state's worst drought in decades wasn't making life easy for Russell and his farming neighbors in western Kansas. This drought, well into its third year, has intensified in Kansas.

Last week's U.S. Drought Monitor update confirmed Kansas is in an "extreme" or "exceptional" drought -- the two worst classifications. Much of our state rose roughly 6 percentage points to 83.8 percent. This compares with Oklahoma where nearly 76 percent of the state to our south is mired in extreme or exceptional drought.

Sixty percent of our country in the lower 48 states is experiencing some degree of drought as of last week's U.S. Drought Monitor update.

While every hunting trip is a wonderful experience, the number of birds was at least 50 percent less than an average year. On Nov. 10, the wind blew at a steady clip of 45 miles per hour out of the south, sometimes gusting close to 55 miles per hour.

By noon, the temperature was pushing 80 degrees, and I believe I heard on the weather that evening Hays had set or tied the old record of 81 degrees for the high temperature. Not ideal weather conditions for pheasant hunting or a growing wheat crop nearly half way through a dry November.

The forecast promised a chance of rain and, about 4 p.m., it sprinkled for maybe one minute and then these few drops of water from on high zoomed to the north. No measurable precipitation in western Kansas, although some areas of eastern Kansas reported an inch of rain or better.

Sunday morning our hunting party rose before the roosters and surrounded a giant plum thicket where we fired some of our first shots at the wily roosters. We were lucky enough to bag three birds.

The temperature had dropped 55 degrees from the day before and the wind had shifted around to the northwest where it had slowed to about 35 mph. The wind chill was cold and several of the hunters were bitterly complaining about the cold.

Still, we hunted well into mid-afternoon with little more success. Our party was only seven strong, and we didn't have enough blockers and the birds began flying out of the fields as soon as we stepped in.

Speaking of steps, did I tell you that with each step a plume of dust erupted from the powder-dry soil?

By the end of each day, our faces carried a thin layer of dust. While I showered both days and cleaned my ears with a wash cloth and Q-Tips, it still took me three days to clean my ears.

My brother-in-law, Norbert, hunted in Sheridan County; he said their experience in northwestern Kansas was even less productive than ours around Hays. He estimated the bird count totaled approximately 15 percent to 25 percent of what it is in an average year.

Norb has hunted in Sheridan County for more than 40 years. He should have a pretty good idea of pheasant numbers.

In spite of the less-than-ideal hunting conditions, our group of hunters enjoyed our time in the fields and draws of northwestern Kansas. We appreciated the hospitality and the fine folks who allow us to hunt their land each season. We understand that hunting on private property is a real privilege and something not everyone has an opportunity to do.

That said, we also witnessed firsthand the drought conditions facing our nation's crop and livestock producers. We know without the blessing of rain from above, 2013 could bring continued drought, lack of abundant crops and tightening economic conditions for farmers and ranchers.

This Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season, think about the blessings you enjoy. Think about the farmers and ranchers who face continued troubled times with this lingering lack of moisture. Offer a prayer on their behalf.

John Schlageck, Hoxie, is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansan who writes for the Kansas Farm Bureau.