Wyoming rancher Todd Heward closeup, cattle in background
WEATHER WATCHER: Wyoming rancher Todd Heward is one of approximately 1,500 National Weather Service cooperative weather observers in the eight-state Western Farmer-Stockman region. Many of the 1,500 volunteers are ranchers and farmers.

Tracking weather with solar power

Key information about drought, rainfall and temperature relies on spotters — and increasingly, power from the sun.

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series exploring how ranchers and farmers are benefiting from renewable energy.

Cattle and sheep producer Todd Heward calls up the U.S. Drought Monitor map for his area and sees yellow.

“Abnormally dry,” says Heward, who ranches in southeast Wyoming’s desolate, windswept Shirley Basin. “It could be a lot worse.”

For Heward and many ranchers and farmers across the parched West, it often is much worse. And when the map is a sickening shade of orange, red or dark red, producers who planned ahead typically fare OK — while those who didn’t often pay serious consequences.

Weather monitoring is among the key tools that Heward and his family use, and the information that he and other observers collect from their solar-powered rain gauges not only helps their own operations, but also those of ranchers and farmers throughout the region.

Heward is one of about 1,500 people in the eight states covered by Western Farmer-Stockman who voluntarily collects weather data each day as part of the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program.

Like Heward, many of the observers across the region and country are ranchers and farmers, and the information they gather is invaluable to numerous agencies, including the USDA. It can also be used by individuals whose livelihoods depend on what Mother Nature dishes out. And — as is often the case — what she doesn’t dish out, as the weather data can help ag producers with both short- and long-term planning when it comes to drought.


COLD CEREAL: Keeping track of the weather helps the Heward family with short- and long-term planning. Here, cattle feed on hay on the Heward ranch in southeast Wyoming.

Precipitation data, along with minimum and maximum temperature readings that Heward and other observers collect in the U.S., are available at xmacis.rcc-acis.org. This means that neighboring ranchers and farmers, once they get used to navigating the website, can find short- and long-term temperature, precipitation and snowfall records.

The information that Heward collects, for example, is listed under the “Single Station” tab for “Shirley Basin, Wyo.”

Looking at the numbers for December 2017 quickly reveals why this is one tough place to ranch, and why tracking the weather is important: The average low was only 3 degrees F (higher than normal for this period), and less than one-quarter inch of precipitation fell (that’s why sagebrush and drought-tolerant grasses are king in this tough environment).

“Several of our neighbors watch the weather data that we collect pretty closely, and people who lease pasture in the area during spring, summer and fall also use it,” Heward says. “The data helps them to compare year-to-year precipitation, as well as the timing of precipitation both before and during the growing season.”

Do-it-yourself approach
These numbers, coupled with other tools, including the U.S. Drought Monitor map, are important for planning, says Heward. He notes that if ag producers don’t live close to a cooperative weather station and its subsequent online data, they can assemble a basic, reliable, inexpensive system themselves as long as they are willing to put in the time to regularly collect information.

“The volunteer work I do for the NWS Cooperative Observer Program takes about 20 minutes a day, and you or a helper have to record data each and every day,” Heward says. “There is certainly some commitment to this, and there is also training involved.”

But Heward knows how important weather tracking is to his operation. In fact, he notes, “Three years ago I purchased an anemometer and I am now recording maximum wind speeds, since wind combined with other factors affect both livestock and the landscape.”

He provides wind and other weather conditions in his daily comments to the NWS.

Heward’s father, the late Ron Heward, became a Cooperative Observer Program volunteer in the early 1990s, and he is now happy to carry the weather torch.

“I know that what we’re doing not only helps us, but it also helps other ranchers in our area take a proactive approach when it comes to management,” Heward says.


OLD AND NEW: A solar panel measuring 8 by 12 inches charges a 12-volt battery, which, in turn, powers the Fischer & Porter rain gauge (right) on the Heward ranch in Wyoming. At the end of each month, Todd Heward sends a paper tape that records precipitation amounts to the National Weather Service. He also takes manual precipitation readings daily from a standard rain gauge (left). Just outside of the photo is a maximum and minimum temperature system, which records temperatures.

Weather information available to producers
The small, rocket-shaped Fischer & Porter rain gauge on the Heward Ranch in Wyoming is powered by a 12-volt battery, which, in turn, gets its energy from a solar panel measuring only 8 by 12 inches.

Every 15 minutes, precipitation amounts — if any — are punched into a paper tape. At the end of each month, rancher Todd Heward and other cooperative weather observers across the U.S. who are using F&P gauges, send the tape to the National Weather Service, which makes the data available online at xmacis.rcc-acis.org.

Heward also takes manual precipitation readings each day from a standard rain gauge that NWS placed on the ranch years ago.

“Most cooperative weather observers in our area have the standard 8-inch gauge, while others have the F&P,” says Jim Kalina, NWS observation program leader based in Boulder, Colo. “We also have some observers who have both a standard rain gauge and an F&P.”

Additionally, observers record temperatures. Many, including Heward, use an electronic thermometer station called MMTS, short for maximum and minimum temperature system, that looks like a beehive. His particular unit is currently powered by an underground utility line from the house, with a backup battery, but NWS is slowly converting these systems to solar.

Learn more details about the NWS equipment.

Tiny solar panels pack big punch
The very small solar panels only power 6- and 12-volt batteries — but in the world of weather forecasting, they’re powerhouses.

Fischer & Porter rain gauges used at National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Program stations across the country run off solar energy, and more and more temperatures gauges are also being powered by solar, says Jim Kalina, NWS observation program leader based in Boulder, Colo.

Approximately 11,000 cooperative stations across the U.S., including 1,500 in the eight states covered by Western Farmer-Stockman, provide critical precipitation and temperature data for the NWS. In turn, farmers, ranchers and many others can use that information for short- and long-term planning.

Not surprisingly, many of the volunteers who operate these stations in collaboration with NWS are agricultural producers.

“Approximately 15% of the cooperative observers in our area of Colorado are ranchers and farmers,” Kalina says. “They are very interested in the weather and are excellent observers.”

Colorado has 269 Cooperative Observer Program stations, and Kalina has gotten to know many of the volunteers who live in farm country on the state’s eastern plains.

“We do site visits at least once a year to talk with the observers and to ensure the equipment is running properly, and the farmers and ranchers are great people to work with,” he says. “They keep very detailed records, which is a huge help to our office and to the NWS across the country.”

And for the commitment they make, the ag producers, in turn, are able to use the very numbers they collect for their own ranch and farm planning.

“We often find that their neighbors are using the information as well, because for many people living out in the country, that is the only source of weather data they can get for their area,” Kalina says.

Data collected at the stations is available at xmacis.rcc-acis.org. This site can be difficult to navigate until one becomes familiar with how to access information that will help with ranch and farm planning.

Another weather tool available to producers is the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, which is overseen by Colorado State University and collaborators.

“You can get precipitation and temperature data for your area, as well as soil moisture and hail reports,” says Rob Cox, NWS science operations officer in Cheyenne, Wyo. “Additionally, if someone has a 4-inch rain gauge, they can enter data into the CoCoRaHS system.”

Ranchers and farmers wanting to track weather — even if it’s just for their own purposes — can obtain a 4-inch rain gauge and other equipment at weatheryourway.com/cocorahs.

Or go to weather.gov, click on the map where you live, and then scroll to the bottom of the page to find contact information for your local NWS office.

Our 8-state region well represented
Each day, approximately 1,500 people in the eight states covered by Western Farmer-Stockman record official temperature and precipitation data for the National Weather Service. This information, in turn, is used for a host of purposes, including agricultural planning and assessment.

Many of these are volunteers, among them ranchers and farmers, and all are part of the NWS Cooperative Observer Program. The volunteers and contractors in our readership area account for nearly 15% of the approximately 11,000 observers across the U.S.

The number of Cooperative Observer Program weather stations in the Western Farmer-Stockman region follows: Colorado, 269; Idaho, 127; Montana, 300; Nevada, 97; Oregon, 225; Utah, 165; Washington, 168; Wyoming, 148; WFS region, 1,499; and the U.S. total, approximately 11,000.

Volunteers provide key info for drought monitoring
When was the last time you looked at the U.S. Drought Monitor map in hopes your ranch or farm was still in that colorless area signifying “none”?

Or, if you happen to be living in a locale shaded orange, red or dark red — signifying severe, extreme and exceptional drought, respectively — how often do you check the map praying for a better color?

If the U.S. Drought Monitor is one of your go-to sites for ranch and farm planning, thank volunteer weather observers and their solar-powered precipitation gauges for the vital information they provide.

“Data collected by these volunteers are most definitely used by us and many other agencies across the country,” says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center on the University of Nebraska campus in Lincoln. “These volunteers are collecting information important to ranchers, farmers and many others.”

The goal of NDMC is to help our country better prepare for drought, and it gleans facts from a variety of sources to compile its support tools, which include the Drought Monitor Map, Drought Impact Reporter, VegDRI and Drought Risk Atlas.

Among the key info sources, Fuchs says, is weather data collected by the approximately 11,000 National Weather Service volunteer observers in the U.S., many of whom are agricultural producers living in rural areas.

“These stations collect temperature, rain and snow data, so we can compile all this information and determine if an area is above-normal, normal or below-normal,” Fuchs says. “With this data, we can then calculate drought indices.”

The volunteers are part of the NWS Cooperative Observer Program, and the official records they gather are used for everything from heating and air system development, to climate change studies, to energy and water needs, to ranch and farm management, Fuchs says.

“When we start talking about studies that are being done on climate change, the data collected by these volunteers are what people are looking at,” he notes. “Their work is a huge public service.”

Fuchs says that solar technology allows the observers, working in collaboration with the NWS, to place equipment where it is not obstructed by homes and outbuildings, which is necessary to assure data quality.

“Having the ability to use solar panels and battery packs to maintain the power needs to these stations is very important,” he adds.

Waggener writes from Laramie, Wyo.

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