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Published July 17, 2012, 12:06 AM

Feeling the heat: From an early planting start to a full-on drought

National Weather Service issued an advisory on Friday warning that much of eastern North Dakota, including portions of Barnes, Cass, Grand Forks, Griggs, Steele and Traill counties, is now in a severe drought, with many surrounding counties in a moderate drought.

By: Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications

FARGO — After years of combating saturated soil during the spring planting season, many Red River Valley farmers were relieved to get into the field early this year and get a good start on what could have been bumper crops, Dwight Aakre said.

“But it just continued too dry too long, and so now we’re starting to hurt,” said Aakre, a farm management specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Conditions have gotten so bad that the National Weather Service issued an advisory on Friday warning that much of eastern North Dakota, including portions of Barnes, Cass, Grand Forks, Griggs, Steele and Traill counties, is now in a severe drought, with many surrounding counties in a moderate drought.

It’s even worse across large swaths of the nation, especially in corn-rich states like Iowa, and everything from grains and soybeans to livestock could take a hit.

Rick Morgan, a Northland Community and Technical College business management instructor in Moorhead, said the long-range outlook for continued drought conditions is already affecting livestock producers’ bottom line and could soon trickle into the grocery store aisles.

“It’s supply and demand, and when supply is short, then demand skyrockets,” he said. “It means the prices are going to go up.”

Regional outlook

Climate forecaster Mark Ewens with the National Weather Service’s Grand Forks office said many areas across eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota have seen half or less of their normal rainfall since July 1, and there is little chance of significant rain for the rest of the month.

Generally, local producers near and south of the Fargo-Moorhead area have been helped by slightly more rain, he said, and fields in northeast North Dakota near the Canadian border also benefited from isolated thunderstorms around the Fourth of July.

“It’s extremely variable,” he said. “We’ve got some potentially very good crops coming along, and we’ve got some crops that are showing some stress and will definitely be hurt, so just about anything can happen yet.”

Aakre said the dry weather has already taken a toll on hay, with the first crop yields about half of normal and the following crops also suffering from the arid conditions.

Corn, soybeans, sugar beets and wheat are handling it a little better because they’re benefiting from the extra water locked in the Red River Valley after years of wet weather, he said.

But Morgan said the underground reservoir of water is drying up, and yields will soon drop if the weather doesn’t turn around because the crops will need more than 1 inch of rain each week.

Aakre said getting rain at this point won’t help much with small grains, but the fate of local corn and soybean crops depend on getting a break from the drought.

“If we continue with this heat and this dryness for another two weeks, then we’ll definitely see some serious losses,” he said.

Market impact

Morgan said the nation’s widespread drought has already affected livestock operations. Producers are forced to pay ever-increasing rates for feed for their animals, but don’t get higher prices when they sell their hogs or cattle, he said.

That means many dairy producers have started to sell their cows, in turn making the market even worse for beef producers who now have to compete with the flood of extra cows on the market.

Morgan said that could cause a short-term drop in beef prices for the consumer. But prices would eventually climb again because there would be fewer cattle to satisfy demand, and the remaining producers would be stuck with higher feed bills as corn and soybeans get more expensive.

Grocery shoppers also could see a spike in prices from the drought, he said.

A local elevator quoted prices at about $14.50 per bushel for soybeans and $6.75 for corn by Monday. But Morgan said some private forecasters believe the dry weather and lower yields could make those rates climb 30 percent or more, up to $20 for a bushel of soybeans and $10 for corn, by the time this year’s crop is harvested.

He said the latest crop report dropped the expected national corn yield from more than 160 bushels per acre to 146, and the widespread drought will likely reduce yields even more.

Aakre said the food industry has sometimes used “weather scares” like this to justify big price jumps, even if the overall cost to produce these foods rises very little. But livestock operations have already turned into a losing business for many producers, he said, and ethanol production has been scaled back as the impact of a hard-hit corn crop starts to trickle into the market.

“In much of the Corn Belt, the corn is probably beyond help for any rain to arrive now,” he said.

When will it end?

Ewens said forecasters expect the warm and dry weather pattern to continue for the rest of July, and the outlook for August calls for continued arid weather.

He said the region is on the northern edge of a “classic, large-scale drought” that’s affecting much of the country and might be the biggest dry streak to hit the United States since the late 1980s or early 1990s.

While the Red River Valley’s geography and rich deposits of clay have helped local farmers stave off the worst damage from the dry weather, Ewens said these factors also will prevent a fast, easy recovery from the drought.

“When you get heavy rains, all it basically does is just get the top wet and then it runs off because this gumbo, as they call it, gets saturated near the surface,” he said. “It takes a long time for it to percolate down, so you need the repeated rains over a period of time to get it to really improve.”

How much would it take? Ewens said meteorologists look to the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a formula that determines the rainfall needed to rebound from a drought.

For Fargo and the rest of east-central North Dakota, about 7.75 inches of rain would “totally erase” the drought, while any amount would help improve conditions.

It would take just under 10 inches of rain in the near future to fully saturate the soil in northwest Minnesota, while parts of Missouri and other dry places around the country would need 10 to 12 inches or more to get back on track.

“You’d have to have a widespread, very heavy rain or series of events to wipe it out,” he said.

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