As cattle came in from pasture in 2019, livestock experts in the Upper Midwest, and especially North Dakota, were concerned about forage availability after a wet summer and a wet fall made putting up and hauling feed difficult to impossible. Now, a year later, experts are concerned about forage availability for the opposite reason: Dry conditions throughout the region decreased forage production.

Either way, some producers may not have enough feed for their livestock this winter.

“That challenge is actually very similar. It’s just a different root cause to it,” explained Miranda Meehan, livestock environmental stewardship specialist at North Dakota State University Extension.

Dry conditions have been growing across the western United States throughout 2020. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows a concentration of drought conditions growing from the southwestern part of the country. The latest update, which came out Oct. 29 and reflects conditions on Oct. 27, shows North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana nearly covered in drought and abnormally dry conditions, while conditions were even worse in nearby states like Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. Minnesota had only a small amount of drought and abnormally dry conditions. Iowa’s drought conditions have improved in recent weeks, but a spot of extreme drought remains in the northwest.

North Dakota, Meehan explained, has been on the edge of the drought area, thus suffering less than some nearby states. But the impacts are creeping in everywhere.

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Daryl Ritchison, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, said it’s not unusual for an abnormally wet year to be followed by an abnormally dry one. It’s “just part of living in the Northern Plains,” he said.

Ritchison said it’s too early to call what’s happening in North Dakota a drought. Right now, a high percentage of the state is dry. But that can change quickly.

“I think in many ways it’ll come down to not only winter precipitation but early next spring,” he said.

Winter precipitation in the region, particularly in frigid North Dakota, tends to be low. Snow doesn’t generate an abundance of moisture, and often what is generated ends up running off into low spots like sloughs and creeks rather than soaking into the soil. Ritchison said what happens in April and May will determine whether the area is truly in a drought.

In North Dakota, Meehan said the drier late summer and early fall conditions have created some overgrazing issues, particularly in the western and northwestern parts of the state. That will make the April through June moisture levels, and corresponding forage production and water availability, important to monitor.

“If we don’t take the proper precautions and allow those to recover before we start grazing next year, we’re going to see decreased production in those pastures,” she said. “That’s going to lead to decreased ability to stock those pastures, and ultimately it’s going to impact livestock performance.”

The wet 2019 conditions, annoying as they were at the time, likely prevented the dry 2020 conditions from having as bad of an impact as they could have, Meehan said. The subsoil moisture allowed adequate forage production in pastures. If it’s dry early in 2021, that subsoil moisture won’t be there to help, and Meehan recommends planning ahead, whether that be in having a plan for supplemental forage, other feed sources or culling animals.

“It’s really important that we have a strategy in place so that when we get to that point we’re not panicking and not able to make a decision,” she said.

Winter kill issues

It isn’t just the dry conditions that could be cause for concern. Unseasonably cold weather also might create some problems for farmers.

Ritchison said the period of time from Oct. 15 to Oct. 26 in 2020 was the coldest of that period on record throughout most of North Dakota. Temperatures dipped far below freezing, even into single digits.

Some areas had an adequate amount of snow on the ground to provide insulation for fall-planted crops like winter wheat or rye, Ritchison said. And he thinks “real” winter will hold off until late November, so the ground isn’t likely to freeze completely quite yet.

However, colder than normal conditions have hit areas farther south, all the way down to Oklahoma, and Ritchison thinks winter kill damage could be a factor in other places.