The 2021 growing season in North Dakota is still a few weeks away, but already drought conditions are a major concern for livestock producers.

Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension rangeland specialist and director of Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in Streeter, N.D., said the current drought conditions statewide are unlike anything he’s experienced over the last three decades.

“Last fall and this winter have been the driest I’ve seen it back to 1988,” he said. “The drought actually started last spring. The fall of 2019 was extremely wet throughout the state, then the precipitation kind of shut off. What saved us last year was all that carryover moisture. Our pastures were actually in really good shape. We were fortunate to get some rain in July and August, which kept our pastures growing, but I would say the severe drought really started in September 2020.

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Sedivec explained that the area has only received 16% of normal precipitation since September.

“I’ve never seen that before and I’ve been doing this for 32 years,” he said. “In these dry conditions, looking at the numbers, we are at about 5% of normal subsoil moisture. That is statewide. There are other areas with as low as 2% normal subsoil moisture.”

“If I was a farmer, in terms of cropland, I would be concerned about getting a crop raised this year,” Sedivec warned. “At least our grasses are deep-rooted, they will still find some water. But it’s not a good scenario.”

Because of the dry year in 2020, Sedivec said most producers should expect a minimum of 20-25% less forage in 2021. That’s assuming normal precipitation in May and June.

“All it takes is the month of May to turn things around. Eighty percent of the grass is grown in May and June in North Dakota,” he said. “However, if we get a dry May that goes into June, that 25% becomes 50% or more of reduction in forage production. Even though a producer may have the pasture, (the livestock) would only have about half of the biomass to consume, meaning they are going to run out of feed at some point.”

Producers should start planning now — not in June or July — to get through the year with less forage.

“It’s just the reality of what 2021 is going to give us: less production,” said Sedivec. “If the drought continues, it’s going to be dramatic.”

What is needed

Kevin Sedivec, rangeland specialist and director of the North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, warns ranchers against overgrazing during the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line conference held in Bismarck Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Jessica Holdman / Bismarck Tribune
Kevin Sedivec, rangeland specialist and director of the North Dakota State University Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, warns ranchers against overgrazing during the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line conference held in Bismarck Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018. Jessica Holdman / Bismarck Tribune
If average precipitation in May and June is received, that would equate to a 20-25% reduction in forage. It would take at least 150% of normal precipitation in any given area in North Dakota to get moisture levels back to normal, based on the data, and it will take around 175% of normal precipitation to get above normal noted Sedivec.

The Streeter, N.D., area, from which Sedivec is based, averages around 6 inches of precipitation in May and June. Further east, it’s more like 8 inches and if you get farther west, it’s more like 4.5 inches.

For Dickinson, for example, an area that receives around 4-4.5 inches of rain in May, 7 to 8 inches of rain will be needed to get moisture levels back to normal.

“That doesn’t happen very often. If you look at the data, that happens about once in five years,” Sedivec said. “It’s just like rolling a dice. Are you going to roll that dice that you’re going to get that one-in-five year? If not, you better start planning, but if you wait to start planning in July, you’re in trouble.”

Planning ahead

Sedivec said there a few options producers have to overcome potential production losses. Producers can start by looking at their herd and start thinking about culling older animals and those that aren’t carrying a calf — the animals that aren’t making any money.

“Producers need to see where they can cut that 20% that’s not going to make them money anyways,” he said.

Another strategy is weening calves early, which makes that cow’s requirements about 30% less.

“So if you are going to get a 25% cut in production if we get normal precipitation, then a producer can get by just through early weening and culling those unproductive cows,” Sedivec said.

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Just how bad is the drought, exactly?

As it stands, 100% of North Dakota is in a drought state. Eighty percent is in a severe drought and almost 30% of the state is in an extreme drought stage, which is a D3 drought on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s ranking system. A D4 drought is the most extreme ranking. A D3 drought corresponds to an area where major crop and pasture losses are common, fire risk is extreme, and widespread water shortages can be expected requiring restrictions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We haven’t seen that level of a drought since 2006,” added Sedivec.

Currently, the D3 drought area in North Dakota is in the northwest corner of the state covering an area from Crosby to Williston to Minot, down to Bismarck. The southwest corner of the state is a little better off as of now. However, if that area doesn’t receive any rain in the next week to 10 days, Sedivec said he could see the southwest being classified as a D3 drought.

“If the southwest doesn’t receive any precipitation in the next week or so, you’re then looking at almost half of the state in a D3 drought,’ said Sedivec. “We haven’t been in that state in a long, long time.”