A while back in this blog, I discussed new satellite technology that determined the world has about 20% more cropland than previously estimated. This discovery came about courtesy of Landsat satellites that can see every piece of the globe down to 30-meter chunks. Thirty meters is roughly 100 feet—98.4 to be exact, for those of you who, like my dad, prefer precision over rounding.

That type of precision in the wrong hands can be used to do great damage to agriculture. Used for good, however, that technology can help agriculture worldwide do an even better job of producing food and fiber.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog. By next spring, researchers in the U.S. will release a drought forecast map that they hope will be accurate down to a sub-county level. That’s according to Justin Derner, a range scientist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Cheyenne, Wyo.

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Speaking during the recent Range Beef Cow Symposium, Derner said researchers started doing remote sensing with satellites in 1982 with satellites and pairing that with on-the-ground data. That 30-plus years of data allowed them to develop some good production models to help producers anticipate potential forage production.

But times, they are a’changing. As we now know, satellite sensing technology is much more sophisticated. So range management researchers are using that technology to develop even more accurate drought predictability.

In fact, a drought predictability map has already been developed and researchers are now refining the technology to increase its accuracy and usefulness in predicting drought and in the decisions ranchers must make as they put their drought management plans into effect. Researchers initially rolled out a prototype of the map last June, which showed the ongoing drought in Montana and the western Dakotas and predicted its ongoing severity. “We hit it square on,” Derner said.

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“We’ll roll this out next spring,” Derner told the crowd, in time for ranchers to use the technology to predict summer forage production and make plans accordingly. His hope is that the map will be updated every couple of weeks so ranchers have a series of snapshots to plug into their drought planning calculations.

Indeed, technology has a potential dark side. But the upside is great and that’s a very good thing, especially when it allows you to get ahead of a drought and deal with it proactively rather than reacting after the grass is all gone.

“It gives us another tool in the tool box to plan for drought,” he said. “It doesn’t have to sneak up and bite us in the rear end like it typically seems to do when droughts occur.”