How does 2021's drought stack up to 1988? It's hard to say

Farmers and ranchers in the Northern Plains recall 1988 as the worst drought they've experienced. And 2021 has drawn comparisons to that long-remembered year. But how close is it to that kind of historical drought?

Scarcity of pasture is a growing concern in North Dakota and other parts of the Northern Plains as drought conditions intensify. In this Sheridan County, N.D., pasture, new growth was barely visible on June 2, 2021. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Much of the Northern Plains settled into a drought before the growing season even started. Now, with June nearly half over, North Dakota is the epicenter of the northern drought, second in severity in the U.S. only to the pervasive drought in the southwestern region. That’s leading to difficult decisions for cattle producers and crop farmers alike, many of whom are comparing 2021 to 1988, a historically bad year for drought conditions.

Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, N.D., said it’s hard to compare drought years, particularly because ‘88 was prior to the advent of the U.S. Drought Monitor , but also because no two are the same. However, 2021 is shaping up to be a bad one.

“I think it’s safe to say, if we aren’t worse than ‘88, we’re right on track to being just as bad,” he said.

How bad was 1988? Farmers who made it through will have their own stories of crops that fizzled out and cattle that had to be sold, and the public record agrees.

"The 1988 drought was among the worst in this century and left several regions of the nation with below-normal soil moisture going into the fall and winter," wrote John Harman, then-director of Food and Agricultural Issues at the General Accounting Office, in a 1989 report to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. , who was serving then as chairman of the Subcommittee on Agricultural Research and General Legislation. Harman's report looked at how the 1988 drought would impact the 1989 growing season.


In 1988, the report said, hot, dry conditions in the spring and summer spread drought conditions across 35% of the contiguous U.S. by June. The next month, that number rose to 43%. The Northern Plains and the Corn Belt were the hardest hit areas. The drought worked particular havoc on corn yields, reducing them by 29% from 1987, compared to a 21% reduction in soybeans and a 10% hit in wheat. The impacts lasted into the 1989 growing season.

When it comes to the 2021 drought, Schlag said it's important to note that it didn't kick off with conditions in 2021.

"This drought started in 2020, end of March," he said.

For many parts of the region, the impacts were less noticeable in 2020 because of extreme wet conditions heading into the growing season after a disastrous 2019 harvest . Crops and pastures in some places were able to use that soil moisture to keep going despite far below normal precipitation.

Drought, Schlag said, causes “nagging kind of injuries” rather than immediate ones. But the impacts are obvious now if they weren’t when the dry conditions started. Primary on the injury list is the native grass, which does most of its growth off moisture in April and May. Later season rain won’t help.

“We were so doggone dry that we really stunted the native vegetative growth,” he said. “That’s an impact that’s not going away.”

There's an impact on crops that isn't going away, too. In some places, dry conditions caused poor germination, so crops came up here and there in a field in places there was sufficient moisture. Then, rain in recent weeks kicked off the other seeds, and now there's a "checkerboard" effect in fields, where crops within a single field can be at vastly different levels of maturity, Schlag said.

What the summer may hold

Schlag grew up on a farm near New Town, N.D., and admits he often would have preferred to spend time fishing rather than doing field work. He remembers one time, in particular, where he and a neighbor were planting in fields separated by a dirt road. Storm clouds moved in, and barely enough rain fell to make dusty imprints on his tractor. Meanwhile, the guy seeding on the east side of the road got rained out.


"We weren't 100 yards apart," he said, noting that the neighbor had to quit when his disc drill got plugged by mud. "And I had to spend the rest of the day seeding that field."

He expects the rest of the 2021 growing season to go kind of like that. Rain will come in thunderstorms that deliver plentiful moisture to some people and little to nothing to others, sometimes close by.

“The haves and have-nots are oftentimes going to be very close together,” he said.

Given the current soil conditions, very few parts of the state can go a week to 10 days without moisture without seeing crops and pastures deteriorate, Schlag said. There also are fears among firefighters that heavy moisture followed by extreme heat will lead to quick growth and dry down of grasses, leaving plenty of fuel for an early, intense fire season. Plus, a lack of snow over the 2020-21 winter meant last year's grass is still standing and also available as fuel.

The recent fast-moving storms have helped increase streamflow and have filled up some sloughs and dugouts, Schlag said. It's also helped some crops and grass, and it's kept condition degradation at bay. But in no way has any single storm made up for the long-term lack of moisture, he explained.

Some places, including southwestern North Dakota, have seen some improvement both in conditions and on the U.S. Drought Monitor . But Schlag said the outlook for the rest of the summer, calling for above average temperatures and average or below-average precipitation, means any gains may be short lived.

"When I still look at the medium and long-term climate outlooks, there isn't a lot of optimism out there," he said.

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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