Drought rears its ugly head across region — unusually early

Once again, drought threatens the Upper Midwest. There are serious concerns about how planting and pastures will be affected. What's particularly worrisome is that drought has struck even before the growing season has begun.

With more no-till farming in the Draper, S.D., area, soil is less likely to blow. But farmers sustained winds are 40 to 50 mph and gusts up to 70 mph. Winter wheat is growing, but little fieldwork has been done. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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Tom Bernhardt has heard plenty about drought in recent weeks .

"It seems like everywhere you go, people are talking about it, and it's kind of scary," said Bernhardt, a Linton, N.D., farmer and rancher and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

Though generalizing is risky, that concern is shared to varying degrees across the Upper Midwest. On an even bigger scale, there's growing anxiety about the so-called "mega-drought," which has parched roughly three-quarters of the entire western United States, with about 40% of the region in extreme drought or worse.

In the Upper Midwest and elsewhere, spring planting is nearing and livestock soon will begin spring grazing. That leads to worries whether fields will hold enough moisture for newly planted seed to develop properly and whether spring pastures will produce enough grass to feed livestock.


"It's getting pretty critical. If we don't get rain in the next few weeks, a lot of the grass just isn't going to start growing," affecting both pastures and hayfields, said James Halvorson, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.

While South Dakota ranchers are no strangers to drought, moisture shortages are most common in the summer. To have drought strike so early in the growing season is particularly worrisome and dangerous, Halvorson said, echoing what others in area ag are saying.

Livestock producers in many parts of the Upper Midwest are concerned about pastures for 2021 given the generally snow-free winter that has followed a dry fall. Photo taken in Stutsman County, N.D., on March 31, 2021. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Dry conditions began last summer and were worsened by the widespread scarcity of winter snowfall. That depleted soil moisture and set the stage for drought now, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.

And with the spring projected to be dry, the U.S. Drought Monitor forecasts that drought will persist in the hardest-hit areas through at least the end of June.

Perhaps even more alarming, current projections for the Upper Midwest provides "a pretty strong signal there that through the summer months we have pretty good odds of below-normal precipitation," combined with above-average temperatures in the same period, Fuchs said.

"That's not a good signal," he said.

One caveat:


Not everyone in a region afflicted with drought is necessarily suffering from it. Isolated thunderstorms last growing season have left some producers with a little more moisture cushion this year. Likewise, some localized areas could be helped by thunderstorms this spring even if the overall region is dry.

Related stories:

The drought maps say . . .

There are different ways of defining and measuring drought. The U.S. Drought Monitor , which describes its mission as "providing a consistent big-picture look at drought conditions in the United States," splits drought into five categories. In increasing levels of intensity, they are abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought.

Virtually all of Minnesota and North Dakota, most of Montana and South Dakota and northern and western Iowa are in one of those five stages. The western half of North Dakota, northwest Montana, northeast South Dakota and extreme northwest Iowa are particularly hard hit, according to the Drought Monitor, a joint effort of the National Drought Mitigation Center, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the most troubling signs is that big chunks of North Dakota, are shifting from severe drought (the third-highest level) to extreme drought (the second-highest level. or D2). In mid-March, 17 % of the state was in the D2 category. That had risen to 27% when this Agweek article was prepared in late March.

National perspective

Blowing soil blurs the horizon on March 29, 2021, south of Fort Pierre, S.D., at Draper. The day had brought 70-degree Fahrenheit temperatures and 40 mph to 50 mph sustained winds, sapping topsoil moisture from a recent half-inch rain. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Much of the western United States is faring even worse that the Upper Midwest. Big chunks of Utah, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico are in extreme or exceptional drought (the highest level). Large areas of California, Oregon and Wyoming are in severe drought.


Drought began in the Four Corners area last year and has continued to spread since then, Fuchs said. The term refers to the intersection of the southwestern corner of Colorado, the southeastern corner of Utah, the northeastern corner of Arizona and the northwestern corner of New Mexico.

A year ago, 26% of the western U.S. was in drought, compared with 76% now — a huge gain in a relatively short time. Severe heat and record or near-record dry conditions in 2019 has worsened the drought over the past year, Fuchs said.

Drought is common in the western United States and almost always exists somewhere in it, but only rarely is drought so widespread and intense across the entire region as it is now, Fuchs said.

Iowa not immune

Iowa, known for its fertile soil and generally friendly climate, isn't immune from the regional drought. Widespread dryness that began last year has reached the point where 42% of the state was in drought when this Agweek article was being prepared.

Further, 8.7% of the state was in severe or extreme drought, reflecting major moisture shortages in northwest Iowa.

Rain in mid-March eased some of the concern, but worries persist, said Justin Glisan, Iowa state climatologist.

Dry conditions now might seem unlikely, given that 2018 was the state's second-wettest on record and 2019 was the 12th-wettest on record. "Put those two years together — two of the wettest years in 149 years of records — and so we're coming off a very wet stretch. Last year at this time, our subsoil moisture profiles were at near capacity," Glisan said.

But warm, windy days in May and June 2020 began a switch to current drought conditions , first in west-central Iowa and then expanding into northwest Iowa, Glisan said.

However, relatively good snow cover in much of the state, followed by warmer temperatures that allowed fields to thaw and then followed by more precipitation in late winter, has helped to moderate drought, he said.

According to the Drought Monitor, 41.6% of the state is in drought, down sharply from 62% three months ago. And 1.9% of the state is in extreme drought, down from 4% three months ago.

May and June are the two wettest months in Iowa, so plentiful rain will be particularly needed then, Glisan said.

"We're going up the hill now and hopefully we'll get regular precipitation after we get planted," he said, noting that rain was falling in Des Moines, where he's based, when he talked with Agweek.

Western Iowa is still so short of subsoil moisture that climatologists would like to see above-average precipitation there, he said.

Other drought-afflicted areas of the region also would benefit from above-average rainfall in the next few months to help overcome current moisture shortages, climatologists and ag producers say.

In any case, Iowa's current drought isn't as severe as the one that ravaged the state in 2011-12. "Yes, we are dry, but not as dry as we could be," Glisan said.

Livestock concerns

Grass from 2020 is most obvious in a Stutsman County pasture on March 31, 2021. New green grass had not yet pushed up. Many in the Upper Midwest are concerned about pasture and hay conditions given little rain or snow in recent months. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Farmers, ranchers and others in regional ag have been readying themselves the best they can for drought. For example, this winter, North Dakota State University Extension conducted a six-part webinar on preparing a ranch for drought.

But drought so early becomes even more problematic for ranchers because they're in the midst of calving season or close to wrapping up. Reducing herds is difficult, at best, when cows have just calved or soon will. Further, drought in strong cattle areas of the western U.S. has lessened the ability and willingness of livestock producers there to buy cattle from the Upper Midwest.

"It just doesn't look good. We really need rain," Halvorson said.

Typically, different crops and different types of agriculture are most dependent on rain at differing times in the growing. season. For South Dakota cattle producers, "That time is now," he said. emphasizing that meaningful precipitation in the next weeks would help greatly.

More drought planning resources:

Crop perspective

Winter wheat seedlings tremble in 40 mph to 50 mph winds, on March 29, 2021, about 15 miles south of Fort Pierre, S.D. The area had a recent half-inch rain, with snows adding another 2 inches of moisture since February, but subsoil moisture is dry. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Farmers will make the best decisions they can this planting season, but doing so is more difficult when there's so much uncertainty about weather, said Bernhardt, the North Dakota farmer and rancher.

One potential strategy is shifting to more acres of crops, such as sunflowers, that are planted relatively late. Another option is planting more acres to crops such as wheat that rely less on mid- and late-summer rains than do crops such as soybeans and corn.

Ultimately, most farmers likely will stick close to what they originally planned to plant, Halvorson said.

"I think most people won't go far away from their established (crop) rotation," he said.

Fuchs said modern farming practices help farmers to make the best of a bad situation.

"There are a few things stacking up against producers this year, but some of the practices they're using (such as cover crops and no- or minimum tillage) will help to keep more of that moisture in the soil," he said.

In any case, climatologists and ag producers agree that regular rains will be even more important than usual this growing season.

"There's just little or no moisture in the soil right now. We're really going to need timely rains," Bernhardt said.

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