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Published June 24, 2013, 09:26 AM

A big turnaround

Wet spring after drought eases some problems, creates new ones

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Byron Richard has seen a lot of extreme weather in the past four decades. But the Belfield, N.D., farmer has never seen anything like this spring.

“We’ve kind of lost track of the rain gauge,” he says. “But I know we’re over 9 inches of rain in the past month. To go from a severe drought to a situation where we’re excessively wet — in the 40 years I can remember well, that hasn’t happened.”

Richard’s situation in southwest North Dakota reflects what’s happened across much of the Upper Midwest.

Drought-stricken fields and pastures received heavy rains in May and early June, and several million acres across the Upper Midwest may not get planted.

“If it’s not planted by now, it won’t be,” says Jim Kenyon, who until recently operated a dairy farm in Madison Lake, Minn., in the southeast part of the state.

Farmers in his area generally got in most of their crops, despite heavy rains, says Kenyon, who now works for the National Farmers Organization.

A June 28 acreage report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, will give a better perspective of how many acres didn’t get planted in the region.

The wet, cool spring has another downside, too. The region’s crops aren’t as advanced as they should be, increasing the need for cooperative weather this summer.

In South Dakota, cool, cloudy conditions have limited photosynthesis and plant growth, causing corn in some fields to “look sickly,” according to information from South Dakota State University Extension.

In Minnesota, corn plants on average were 6 inches high in the middle of June. Normally, they’re 13 inches high by then, according to NASS.

On balance, though, the heavy rains helped agriculturalists, especially livestock producers, on the Northern Plains.

Richard, for instance, estimates that about 1,500 acres might go unplanted on his family farm. But he’s quick to emphasize that all the moisture has its pluses, too.

“The big positive is that conditions for livestock producers are just phenomenal. We have really good grass out in the pasture,” he says.

Great for livestock

The spring rains recharged many drought-stricken pastures and hayfields, says Cory Eich, a Canova, S.D., cattle producer and president of his state’s cattlemen’s association.

Before the rains, many producers had sold some of their cattle and were on the verge of needing to sell more, he says.

“A lot of guys just kept holding on, hoping things would get better.” Eich says. “They really needed this.”

Most South Dakota livestock producers ran out of hay. A better-than-average hay crop this year would allow producers to rebuild their supply, he says.

“You just don’t see much hay in any of the hay yards. It would be great to change that,” he says.

Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana also suffered poor hay crops in 2012.

In Minnesota, for instance, 2012 hay production dropped to 2.5 million tons from 4 million tons in 2013.

Mont. gets rains

Much of Montana also was hit with heavy rains.

Some parts of Fergus County, in the central part of the state, received as many as 14 inches in a week, says Darren Crawford, an extension agent.

“After a while, full is full,” he says of the heavy rains.

The precipitation did some damage, washing out bridges and causing some erosion issues, he says.

But the rains did much more good than harm, Crawford says.

The area’s soil was dry, and vegetation, though growing, wasn’t thriving. The rains changed that, he says.

“We had been living hand to mouth. Now we have a full soil moisture profile,” he says.

One measure of how statewide rains helped recharge Montana fields and pastures: More than half (53 percent) of the state’s pasture and rangeland was in poor or very poor condition in the middle of May. The percentage had fallen to only 15 percent by the middle of June, according to NASS.

Statewide rains in ND

Most of North Dakota was hammered with rains this spring. These numbers from the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network reflect how wet it was: Much of the state received 300 to 600 percent of normal precipitation from May 29 to June 4. That followed heavy rains in the middle of May, when virtually the entire state received at least triple its normal precipitation for the period.

What made this spring particularly unusual was that western North Dakota, which is relatively arid, received heavy rains, too.

Bowman, N.D., in the southwest part of the state, received 11.3 inches of rain in May, including three days with at least 2 inches. Historically, the city averages about 2½ inches in May and 15½ inches of precipitation in the entire year.

Annual precipitation in the state ranges from 22 inches in southeast North Dakota to 14 inches in northwest North Dakota. The decline reflects the increasing distance to the Gulf of Mexico, the major water source of most of the state’s precipitation.

A number of factors, not just distance from the Gulf of Mexico, influence where and how much rain falls, says Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist.

This spring, those factors combined to bring heavy rains to western North Dakota, he says.

Northwest Minn. helped

Parts of northwest Minnesota received too much rain, but on balance the moisture helped, says Howard Person, Pennington County extension agent.

“Some of the wheat is a little yellow. We’ve got to get some nitrogen up in the plants. And there are a few drown-out spots,” he says.

The cool spring also delayed the first hay cutting.

“It was so cool the grass just didn’t want to grow,” he says.

Statewide, a first cutting had been taken on 38 percent of Minnesota alfalfa fields by the middle of June. Normally, 68 percent of alfalfa fields in the state had received first cuttings by then, NASS says.

Soybeans and corn in northwest Minnesota generally look good, Person says.

“We have a lot more corn here than we used to. And of course corn likes it hot,” he says.

More heat vital

Warmer weather is needed in coming weeks, especially after cool conditions early in the growing season.

In North Dakota, the number of growing degree days — a measure of heat accumulation that provides an estimate of when crops will mature — were substantially below normal in May, according to the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

For instance, Carrington, in east-central North Dakota, had 261 growing degree days for corn from May 1 to June 4. That’s down from 316 growing degree days in the same period last year and an average of 329 growing degree days in the period.

USDA predicted in late March that farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, would, on balance, plant more corn this year than a year ago.

Attractive corn prices and new varieties that allow the crop to be grown in areas where once it was too risky have encouraged farmers to plant more.

Planting delays this spring will encourage area farmers to plant soybeans on fields that otherwise might have gone to corn. Soybeans can be safely planted later than corn.

“There’ll be some switching,” although it’s difficult to estimate how much, says Jason Mewes, a Colgate, N.D., farmer and president of the state Soybean Growers Association.

Not out of the woods yet

The heavy spring rains didn’t solve all the area’s moisture problems.

For instance, they came too late to help many of South Dakota’s hard-pressed winter wheat fields, says Dennis Todey, state climatologist.

And even with the recent rains, moisture shortages remain a concern in much of the region.

Western South Dakota, southern Montana and parts of western Minnesota are abnormally dry or in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

Much of the region still lacks subsoil moisture from which crops can draw this summer.

In South Dakota, 24 percent of fields are short or very short of subsoil moisture, according to NASS.

Twenty-three percent of Montana fields, 7 percent of Minnesota fields and 3 percent of North Dakota fields are rated short or very short of subsoil moisture.

Much of the region, particularly Montana and the western Dakotas, is accustomed to regular bouts with dryness.

“In this part of the world, we’re always just a few weeks away from another drought,” says Eich, the South Dakota cattle producer.

As he and other area agriculturalists note, more rain will be needed at crucial times in the upcoming growing season.

“It’s not always how much rain you get. It’s when you get it,” he says.

“We really needed the rains we got. They bought us time. They gave us a chance. But we’ll still need a few timely rains this summer,” he says.

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