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Published March 05, 2012, 11:41 AM

Not quite so soggy in Devils Lake area

Dan Webster and other farmers in the waterlogged Devils Lake (N.D.) Basin haven’t had much to celebrate in recent years. But their area generally has avoided heavy snows so far this winter, and that’s raising hopes for timely planting this spring.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Dan Webster and other farmers in the waterlogged Devils Lake (N.D.) Basin haven’t had much to celebrate in recent years.

But their area generally has avoided heavy snows so far this winter, and that’s raising hopes for timely planting this spring.

“We hope we can start planting sooner this spring” than a year ago, says Webster, a Penn., N.D., farmer.

Devils Lake, in north-central North Dakota, has quadrupled in size since it began rising in 1993. It reached a record 1,454.4 feet last summer. The rising waters have claimed 163,450 acres of survey farmland, according to a study conducted last year.

The situation for Webster and other farmers in the area was particularly grim in the spring of 2011, when heavy snows on top of already saturated cropland delayed planting and ultimately prevented about 155,000 acres from being planted in Ramsey and Benson counties.

But the weather turned drier last summer, and that’s continued this winter, says Bill Hodous, Ramsey County Extension Service agent.

“We’ve just missed the (moisture-bearing weather) systems that have come through,” he says.

Drier conditions have caused Devils Lake to drop about a foot from the record height it reached last summer, says Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Water Resource Board.

“We’re in much better shape than we were a year ago,” he says.

Frith and others note that topsoil in much of the area is much drier than a year ago, and that there’s less subsoil moisture, too.

Of course, growing crops in the area will require more precipitation this spring and summer, although preferably not a lot of it, Webster says.

“We’ll need timely rains,” he says.

If the weather continues to cooperate, Webster and other farmers could begin planting as early as April, weeks earlier than in 2012.

Livestock rebound?

Drier weather, if it lasts, also could allow livestock to resume grazing in pastures now lost to lake waters, Hodous says.

That would be especially attractive because record- high cattle prices are encouraging producers to increase their herds.

Much of the farmland south of Devils Lake is best suited to livestock, while farmland north of the lake generally is better for crops, Hodous says.

Nobody in the Devils Lake Basin assumes that the area’s long struggle with excess moisture will subside anytime soon, Frith says.

Dry conditions in 2006 across North Dakota led some to hope that the worst was over for the Devils Lake Basin, he says.

But wet weather returned, and the lake began to rise again, he says.

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