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Published September 17, 2012, 10:14 AM

2012 drought: How does it stack up?

This year's drought in the Upper Midwest is widely believed to be the worst, on balance, since the droughts of 1988 and 1961.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Charles Howe has suffered through his share of droughts, including the current one. When asked to compare this year’s drought with notorious ones of the past, the 68-year-old McLaughlin, S.D., farmer and seed dealer doesn’t hesitate.

“This year isn’t as bad. It’s tough, but there were other years that were worse,” Howe says.

The full, final verdict won’t be in until the region’s late crops are harvested. But based on what’s known so far, this year’s drought isn’t as damaging to the Upper Midwest’s ag economy as drought in some previous years, area agriculturalists say.

True, many ranchers across the region are struggling with dried-up pastures and hayfields. But area crops, particularly wheat and other small grains, which were planted early and matured before the worst of the drought, have held up better than in some previous droughts.

“We’re fortunate here,” says Kurt Krueger, who raises corn and soybeans near Rothsay, Minn., in the west-central part of the state. “It got pretty dry for a while — we got just three-tenths of an inch over a month — but our crops are still looking good compared to a lot of the country.”

Douglas Hartwig, director of the Minnesota Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says crops across the state look better than in some previous droughts.

For instance, USDA predicts Minnesota’s average corn yield this year at 155 bushels per acre, Hartwig says. In contrast, Minnesota corn yielded only 74 bushels per acre in 1988 and 64.5 bushels per acre in 1961, two of the region’s worst drought years.

Farmers and others point to two big reasons this year’s drought has done less damage.

• Better farming practices, including no tillage, and improved crop varieties that need less moisture. No till is a system designed to conserve moisture; the soil is disturbed only by the hole or slit in which the seed is planted.

“We do such a better job today with tillage,” Howe says. “And the genetics (of seed) are better, too.

• Heavy rains in 2011 left plentiful subsoil moisture in much of the region. This year’s crop was able to tap that moisture, reducing the impact of inadequate rain.

“Crops were able to hang on a lot longer than if we didn’t have all that (subsoil) moisture,” says Aaron Krauter, executive director of the North Dakota Farm Service Agency.

The FSA, part of USDA, is involved in disaster, commodity, conservation and farm loan programs, among many others.

Further, farmers are better positioned financially to withstand this drought because of federally subsidized crop insurance, Krauter and others say.

The role of federal crop insurance has soared in the past decade. Administered by USDA, federal crop insurance seeks to protect crop producers from “unavoidable risk” associated with bad weather, crop disease and insects. Crop insurance policies are sold and serviced through private companies. The federal government subsidizes the program to keep it affordable.

Last year, the value of insured crops nationwide totaled $113 billion, up from $78 billion in 2010.

Federal crop insurance “helps farmers manage their risk to a much better level than they could in 1988,” Krauter says.

He farmed in southwest North Dakota during the 1988 drought and grew up hearing about the 1961 drought.

Livestock woes

But Krauter notes that three disaster aid programs, authorized by the 2008 farm bill and targeted for livestock producers, all expired on Sept. 30.

“They’re not here when they’re really needed,” Krauter says.

The Livestock Indemnity Program helped producers who lost livestock to disasters. The Livestock Disaster Forage Program helped producers who suffered grazing losses. The Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program covered losses caused by “adverse weather or loss condition.”

Hay, pasture and water are all short across most of the region, producers say.

In South Dakota, “The hay crop has been about a third of a normal year. A lot of people didn’t even hay anything. Pasture conditions are so-so,” says Shane Kolb, a Meadow, S.D., cattleman and president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Meadow is in northwest South Dakota.

“Water is the thing getting most critical now. Water holes are starting to dry up,” he says.

Some cattle producers already have reduced their herds, he says.

“This is just as dry as ’88,” Kolb says.

Generalizing about conditions in Montana is difficult, but cattle producers in the southern two-thirds of the state are hit especially hard by drought, says Mark Boone, an Ingomar, Mont., cattleman and president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. Ingomar is in east-central Montana.

He and his family moved to their current ranch in 1989. “This drought is the worst in the 23 years we’ve been here,” he says.

One positive is that some ranchers still have leftover hay from their plentiful 2011 crop.

Bruce Nelson, executive director of the Montana Farm Service Agency, says a number of assistance programs are available for drought-stricken farmers and ranchers.

For instance, 11 counties in the state are eligible, so far, for USDA’s Emergency Conservation program. Among other things, the program provides cost-sharing for restoring fencing and conservation structures and providing water for livestock.

Montana has suffered multiple wildfires this year. The fires are unusually hot because of abundant residue from a year ago, when moisture was plentiful. That’s led to substantial damage to fences and other structures, Nelson says.

Ranchers also have been able to graze or hay land in the Conservation Reserve Program this year.

Memorable droughts

If a dozen agriculturalists around the region were asked which drought years they remember most, they’d give plenty of answers, including 2008, 2006, 2002 and 1985. Old-timers and weather professionals also might mention several years during the 1930s.

But the years cited most often — the droughts that set the unofficial benchmark by which other regional droughts are measured — are 1961 and 1988. North Dakota’s spring wheat yielded only 12 bushels per acre in 1961 and 15 bushels in 1988. In contrast, spring wheat in the state averaged 37.1 bushels per acre from 2001 to 2010.

Howe, who’s in north-central South Dakota, remembers both the 1961 and 1988 droughts.

In 1961, small grains in his area averaged a mere six to 10 bushels. In 1988, small grain per-acre yields averaged in the low teens.

In contrast, Corson County, in which McLaughlin is located, averaged 30.7 bushels per acre in 2010.

This year in the Corson County area, small grains on fields farmed with no-till practices averaged 10 to 15 percent below normal, while small grains on fields farmed with conventional practices averaged 50 to 60 percent less than normal, Howe estimates.

“It’s years like this that moisture conservation and good crop rotations really show up,” he says.

Farmers today are more optimistic than they were after the 1961 and 1988 droughts, although the high price of fuel and other expenses are a concern, he says.

Don Tanaka also says that ample subsoil moisture and improved farming practices moderated damage from this year’s drought.

He’s a retired soil scientist who worked for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. He spent 11 years with the ARS in Sydney, Mont., and more than 20 years with the ARS station in Mandan, N.D.

“Good farming practices really separated themselves this year,” he says.

Could be worse

Make no mistake; most of the region needs rain.

Virtually all of North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana were short of moisture on Sept. 8, according to the Crop Moisture Index, which measures moisture supply in the short term across major crop-producing regions. The index was developed by Wayne Palmer, who also developed the better-known Palmer Drought Severity Index.

The Crop Moisture Index has three levels: severely dry (the worst), excessively dry and abnormally dry. As of Sept. 8:

• Much of Minnesota was abnormally dry, with the southern and western parts of the state excessively dry.

• North Dakota was divided among abnormally dry, excessively dry and severely dry.

• South Dakota was divided roughly equally between abnormally dry and excessively dry.

• Eastern Montana was mostly excessively dry, central Montana mostly severely dry and western Montana mostly abnormally dry or excessively dry.

But even though it’s dry overall, some parts of the region will enjoy relatively good harvests, says Mike Loscheider with Waconia (Minn.) Farm Supply. He’s vice president of the Minnesota-South Dakota Equipment Dealers Association.

On balance, ag equipment dealers are optimistic, but sales this winter will provide “the true test,” he says.

Important fall ahead

Drought is hardly unusual in this part of the world, experts say.

“There’s no need to panic,” says Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist. “This (drought) is part of what we’ve come to expect in North Dakota.”

Tanaka remembers a maxim about western North Dakota that holds true for much of the region.

“We’re always two weeks from a drought,” he says.

Area farmers are ambivalent about rain during the next few months. On one hand, they want dry weather to finish harvest, particularly of corn and soybeans.

But farmers need fall rains, winter snow or a combination of the two to recharge soil moisture.

“If we don’t get moisture, next year could be pretty tough,” Tanaka says.

Bruce Nelson, the Montana Farm Service Agency leader, was 10 years old and living on his family farm near Fort Benton, Mont., during the 1961 drought. Fort Benton is in north-central Montana.

He remembers how much harm the drought did to his family’s livestock and crops. One day, during the harvest of a very poor barley crop, the temperature hit 113 degrees.

“It was the only time my father ever said it was too hot to work,” Nelson recalls.

This year’s drought, though painful, isn’t as bad overall as the one in 1961, he says.

But like other agriculturalists on the Northern Plans, he wonders if the worst is yet to come.

“Is this just the beginning of a drought cycle?” he asks.

For what it’s worth, the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center calls for “equal chances” of normal, above-normal or below-normal precipitation on the Northern Plains in October, November and December.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has these predictions for the drought outlook through the end of November:

• Drought will improve in most of South Dakota, western Minnesota and eastern and western North Dakota.

• Drought will persist or intensify in southern and central Montana.