STEELE, N.D. — Though most of Kidder County received at least a quarter-inch of moisture in recent rain and snow events, Penny Nester knows better than to think the farmers and ranchers of the county have nothing else drought-wise to worry about.

“We need a lot more for it to make a huge difference,” said Nester, the North Dakota State University Extension agricultural natural resources agent for Kidder County.

According to the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, storms brought welcome moisture across many parts of North Dakota in the second week in April. Kidder County received as much or more moisture than other parts of the state; but even there, Nester said farmers and ranchers need to prepare for continuing dry conditions.

The impact of the rain on the U.S. Drought Monitor report released April 15, reflecting conditions on April 13, was negligible. While 2.16% of the state — in the southeastern corner — improved to abnormally dry instead of being in drought conditions, the situation actually appears to have worsened for many other parts of the state.

Kidder County, for example, now is completely in extreme drought; the week prior, part of the county was in severe drought instead. The state as a whole now is 75.85% extreme drought, 17.19% severe drought and 4.8% moderate drought. Drought conditions also expanded in South Dakota and Montana, though the situation is improving in Minnesota and Iowa and generally stayed the same in Wisconsin and Nebraska.

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With many farmers in the county switching in recent years to growing corn and soybeans, Nester said not a lot of planting had been done by the time the rain and snow started. Some farmers had started planting barley, hard red spring wheat or oats or doing pre-planting fertilizer or herbicide applications. Some farmers who started planting had stopped in the first week of the month out of concerns for how dry it was.

Recent rain and snow in parts of North Dakota was welcome but won't be enough to pull the area out of drought conditions. Photo taken April 13, 2021, in eastern Kidder County, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Recent rain and snow in parts of North Dakota was welcome but won't be enough to pull the area out of drought conditions. Photo taken April 13, 2021, in eastern Kidder County, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
“The ones that kept going are awfully happy right now, because they did get some moisture to start that germination process,” Nester said.

Most of Kidder County, Nester said, also has a light, sandy and gravelly soil, which means everything dries out easily even in a year with normal moisture.

Cattle producers in the county are the most likely to be switching crop plans right now, Nester said. Pastures in the area are starting to green up, but the grass production relies largely on moisture already in the ground.

“We’re at that point where it’s almost too late for that moisture,” she said. Reduced forage productivity is almost a given now, and a steady stream of rain will be needed to keep regenerating soil moisture.

“It’s going to be something that we need a lot of luck for that to happen, put it that way,” she said.

To prepare for likely forage deficits, Nester said cattle producers are adjusting their cropping plans.

“I’m hearing a lot about millet, sorghum sudangrass, some later season crops, hoping that we get some later moisture to try to provide some hay for those cattle operations, because our pastureland is definitely going to suffer this year,” she said.

Other things producers should consider are feeding longer to delay pasture turnout and grazing first in pastures with significant amounts of more forgiving non-native grasses like Kentucky bluegrass, crested wheatgrass or smooth bromegrass.

Nester said planting in the county will resume when it warms up. While many conventional producers are focused on corn and soybeans, Kidder County also has a significant number of organic producers. Their top crops this year, usually based on what they can contract rather than on traditional markets, appear to be rye, buckwheat and yellow mustard, she said. Organic producers use more tillage than conventional farmers as a means of weed control, but Nester said the sandy soil in the county means it will dry out everywhere, pretty much regardless of whether it’s been worked.

While the recent rain won’t end the drought, it was welcome across the county.

“Every little bit helps,” Nester said. “But we definitely need a lot more.”