It is officially the “worst of times” in the Oklahoma Panhandle. On June 19, the US Drought Monitor upgraded the situation to its most severe drought rating: “D4 – Exceptional” for Cimarron and Texas Counties.

Despite conditions that are even dryer than the historic Dust Bowl of the 1930s, another catastrophic dust bowl is being averted thanks to conservation practices that have been put in place for the last 70 years.

Gary McManus, assistant state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, who advises the national drought monitor, toured Cimarron County June 24, with Cherrie Brown, USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Boise City and Cimarron County Conservation District employees Iris Imler and James Belford. Terry Peach, Oklahoma’s secretary of agriculture, toured the area with the Cimarron County Conservation District Board, Imler, Belford, Brown and county commissioners on July 2, to get a firsthand understanding of how severe the drought is.

The drought situation is indeed exceptionally severe: farmland is blowing away, cattle are being sold due to lack of feed, wells are going dry and crops are dying in the ground. This has significant impact in two counties that are completely reliant on agriculture production to support their economies. Recent storm clouds brought hope, but yielded little to no rain.

“Everything here is blown away, baked or sold off,” Brown said. “It is hard to see ranchers selling off their entire herd, cows that have been part of the ranch for generations. They know these cattle by name; they were part of the family, not pets.

“This is seriously affecting people’s lives,” Brown said.

“As bad as it is, I really saw a lot of great work being done by farmers to save the land,” McManus said. “I also saw instances where conservation practices weren’t being used and saw the great damage being done above and beyond what Mother Nature has done.

“I really have to commend the farmers and ranchers out there for the conservation practices they have applied. That is what makes this drought, and the drought of the 1950s, different than the Dust Bowl. Through the Dust Bowl experiences people learned how to take better care of the land and that’s evident in a situation this severe.”

McManus, who was raised in Buffalo, Okla., is familiar with the Oklahoma Panhandle, yet was still unprepared for the impact the drought had on the land.

“I was demoralized it was so awful,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting Lake Etling to be dry or the country to be so gray and dead.”

Boise City, in Cimarron County, has only received 1.72 inches of rain this year, a record low. Normal rainfall from January through June is supposed to be 9.25. The area ended 2007 with only 10.44 inches of rain recorded, more than an 8-inch deficit from the 18.68 inches of normal average annual rainfall. The area would have to receive more than 15 inches of rain just to catch up to normal.

Raised on a ranch in Texas County, and the wife of a local farmer and rancher, Brown has been helping Oklahoma Panhandle residents apply conservation practices to their land during the past 20 years she has worked for the NRCS. She credits co-workers, Iris Imler, the Cimarron County Conservation District clerk, and Jim Belford, district technician, and the Cimarron County Conservation District Board, for helping landowners apply so many conservation practices on the ground.

It stands to reason that the NRCS has played an influential role in this drought situation. The agency was created as the Soil Conservation Service within USDA on April 27, 1935, in response to the devastation of the Dust Bowl on the nation’s agricultural land. The agency’s primary mission then was to conserve soil. It became NRCS in 1994 to better reflect its expanded role of servicing other natural resources such as soil, water, air, plants, and animals on private and tribal lands.

“Residue management is the biggest thing that has helped us out here,” Brown says. “It has increased yields over time and we have better moisture management with less evaporation in those fields.”

In addition to residue management and no-till, Brown says many farmers in the county are adapting irrigation water management to a higher technology, as well as installing field borders, all of which help reduce wind erosion and conserve water. They also practice crop rotation and plant cover crops for seasonal cover and other conservation purposes.

Ranchers are implementing practices such as prescribed grazing, fencing, water establishments, grass seeding, and windbreak establishment, that not only assist in protecting resources but also keep erosion to a minimum.

“The people around here learned their lessons in the Dust Bowl and the drought of the 1950s,” Brown says. “They know it can get bad and they take care of the land year in and year out, so when a drought does hit, it helps protect their resources a little more.”

“Nearly everyone in the farming community around here has a conservation plan and tries very hard to follow those plans,” she adds.

But even the best conservation efforts can’t make it rain. Brown says soil tests show no moisture 4 inches down into the ground. In fact, no subsoil moisture is found as deep as 6 feet. Since the drought began in January 2007, many windmills have gone dry; others have had to be lowered and reset.

“The irrigated crops aren’t making it; although farmers have watered and watered, the high winds and heat are so excessive, the water can’t keep up with the evaporation rate,” Brown. “If the plants do come up, wind erosion cuts them off and kills the crop.”

Brown credits the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for helping to reduce wind erosion and blowing dust. The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) recently approved emergency haying and grazing on CRP lands in the Oklahoma Panhandle as a drought relief measure to help ranchers find suitable forage for feeding livestock.

“Every little bit helps,” Brown says. “But at this point, what we really need is rain.”