On edge of 2012 drought, SD worries about 2013

The bleeding, northwest edge of the great drought of 2012 was in South Dakota. Where will it be in 2013? That's hard to say, but the situation bears watching, says Dennis Todey, South Dakota's state climatologist, at South Dakota State University...

Hay crop
Farmers west of Fort Pierre, S.D., had a moisture-starved summer of 2012 but have hay and straw supplies to ship to even drier areas farther south. Agweek photo by Mikkel Pates.

The bleeding, northwest edge of the great drought of 2012 was in South Dakota.

Where will it be in 2013?

That's hard to say, but the situation bears watching, says Dennis Todey, South Dakota's state climatologist, at South Dakota State University in Brookings. Todey says the 2012 drought in his state was later setting in than in the main Corn Belt -- states such as Missouri and southern Illinois.

"South Dakota now sits on the north end of the worst category of the drought, which extends to Nebraska, Colorado, parts of Kansas and Oklahoma."

Depending on the conditions of interest, the current drought starts either south of Interstate Highway 90 or U.S. Highway 14. "Roughly, the worst conditions are in the southern half of the state," Todey says.


An important difference between the 2011 to '12 and 2012 to '13 crop years is that there wasn't enough moisture to cause germination of the winter wheat crop. "What has emerged is considered in not very good condition," Todey says.

DeWayne Beck, director of South Dakota State University's Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, says it's dry. He says winter wheat was largely planted on time, but "most of it hasn't even swelled," and what has isn't likely to come up. Winter wheat that doesn't come up until spring tends to be late-maturing and thin.

Unless spring brings good moisture, Beck thinks it'll be difficult to repeat last year's wheat yields, which hit 100 bushels per acre for some farmers in the Pierre area.

Todey notes that ranchers who rely on surface water need something to happen, and winter snowfall can help that. He says national and regional forecasters don't have a consistent message for those predictions. He says El Nino and La Nina make it difficult to read signals.

Minnesota State climatologist Greg Spoden, who works with the state Department of Natural Resources, says there are soil moisture deficits everywhere in Minnesota. Minnesota's soil is now frozen, so there'll be no recharging until a spring thaw. "Any precipitation we receive now until spring will do relatively little to improve the status -- and that status is not good." Snowfall and snow melt will be important to recharge surface water.

"What we'll need are early, ample rains to fill that profile to prepare the reservoir for the season," Spoden says. That's exactly what happened in most of Minnesota in 2012, after a dry fall in 2011.

Spoden says much of the state is at least in moderate drought, and 25 percent of the state is in the extreme drought category, meaning it's a one-in-20-year occurrence. Those spots are in northwest Minnesota, as well as south-central and southwest. None of the state is in the exceptional category, which is a one-in-50-year event.

Central North Dakota's immediate drought concerns have eased a bit, as an 8-inch snow was followed by spottier snows from McKenzie to Ramsey to Pierce counties. Adnan Akyuz, the state climatologist with the soils department at North Dakota State University, says the 10:1 ratio for snow-to-precipitation totals indicates a tendency toward more moisture.


"We have to remember we have been dealing with this drought condition since last year," Akyuz says. "Subsoil moisture is still dry and a series of snowstorms will only help the top layer."

The national Climate Prediction Center in Maryland recently came up with a new temperature forecast for North Dakota, showing an increased likelihood of colder-than-normal temperatures for the northeast part of the state for December, January and February. But the agency didn't have enough definitive information to make an above- or below-normal precipitation prediction for the same period, Akyuz says.

Moisture is on the minds of farmers in central South Dakota.

6 weeks away

FORT PIERRE, S.D. -- Bob Stoeser farms and ranches west of Fort Pierre, S.D., and is looking for rain. "They say you're only ever six weeks from a drought out here," Stoeser says. Stoeser and a brother, Steve, also run Willow Creek Wildlife, a hunting lodge enterprise.

This year, the Fort Pierre area started out wet, and from mid-June through October, the ranch saw zero rain. "We were just living off sub-moisture," Stoeser says. The year's hay crop was spotty. Most of the feed crop Stoeser put up was straw from a very good wheat crop.

"It's going south and west, mostly," Stoeser says, of the hay crop. "It's a pretty wide drought area. The widest I've ever heard of from west to east." He was sending loads to Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.

Stoeser leased out his farm ground this year. He says he grew weary of marketing and the struggle to find help on the ranch, and the price of new equipment influenced his decision to get out. "I'm not a big farmer and, in this day and age, if you don't get bigger you get out, and I chose the latter," Stoeser says.


Stoeser helped a renter cut some winter wheat, which ran about 60 bushels per acre, he says. Quality was fair, corn production was down and sunflower production was mediocre, he says. He also leases his grazing acreage.

"All I do is put up hay now," he says. "If there's a drought the more hay you can move."

Stoeser's land had about a tenth of an inch of rain in late November. "It don't go very far in this situation but it's a start," he says, optimistically.

Unpollinated corn

ONIDA, S.D. -- Pete Severson raises corn, sunflowers, spring wheat and winter wheat. He and his brother, Rick, have 150 cows in a cow-calf beef operation.

"The wheat deal, we had the moisture this year, and just a really good wheat crop," Severson says. "Sunflowers -- where they got their yield from, we don't know. The corn deal -- just totally hit and miss, from 7 bushels (an acre) to 80 bushels."

Severson normally shoots for a corn yield of 120 bushels an acre, with no-till practices designed to build up moisture. "This year, she just got hot and didn't pollinate," Severson says. The crops were all planted this year, but conditions probably will trigger a crop insurance payment. Harvest in the area was early, except for some late-planted sunflowers. Severson's NuSun oil sunflowers ran from 1,400 pounds per acre to more than 2,000 pounds.

The last significant rain period Severson's farm had was late June through the end of November. "Since June, we've had barely enough to get the ground wet," he says. Forecasts didn't indicate the dry conditions were going to break until spring "if it breaks then," he says. If that's so, it'll "put us in a world of hurt," he says.


"We've got winter wheat in the ground that never sprouted," Severson says. "It never did anything." He expects it'll have to be replanted, he says, noting that it's about 1,000 acres. It's unclear how crop insurance will treat that situation, and how long the companies will wait to make a decision.

On toward spring

BLUNT, S.D. -- Jacob "Jake" Bonnichsen, lives near Sioux Falls, S.D., but farms with his father, James, near Blunt, S.D. Conditions there are extremely dry, but he's staying optimistic.

After the 2012 harvest, Bonnichsen was busy with shop projects, including making a rock digger attachment for a skid-steer loader. He figured it might cost $200 to build an attachment that might cost $1,000, pre-made. Since then, the Bonnichsens have moved into other equipment maintenance -- "getting ready for springtime," he says.

Bonnichsen, 26, works as a welding inspector, doing non-destructive inspections, on pipelines especially.

The Bonnichsen farms produce spring wheat, winter wheat, sunflower and some corn, as well as oats and millet, depending on the year.

Spring wheat this year averaged 40 to 60 bushels per acre, which is good, with excellent quality at 14 to 15 percent and test weight about 65 pounds per bushel. Winter wheat had 11 to 12 percent protein, with yields at 65 to 85 bushels per acre.

"We just had a phenomenal wheat crop, the best we've ever had," Bonnichsen says. "That was true for a lot of farmers in the area."


The farm raised about 1,500 acres of corn and the yield averaged a disappointing 40 to 70 bushels. "I think the county average is 75 or 80 bushels, Bonnichsen says. The Bonnichsens run about 175 head of black and "black baldy" cows and are a cow-calf operation.

Jake markets some of his own grain, including 230 acres of production. He tries to keep in tune with marketing specialists, but doesn't pay for any special advice. On the cattle side, they just sell their calf crop off the cow when they wean. "We've got a good solid market in Fort Pierre that we always sell at," he says.

Keeping them home

ORIENT, S.D. -- Andy Schlechter and his family raise wheat, corn, soybeans, some millet for hay and alfalfa. Rain that came in early November was settling the dust, but not much more came after that. Schlechter Farms is a two-generation operation, with Schlechter's two brothers, father and uncle involved. Paul and Lawrence, both in their late 70s, own the land in an operation started by their father. Their sons, Terry, Chad and Andy are in their 30s and 40s, and the fourth generation is getting interested.

This year's wheat was "decent, considering everything we went through," Andy Schlechter says. "It was cool early; moisture got a little tight toward the end of the wheat crop for it to finish."

The family only raised spring wheat this year.

"We used to be winter wheat, as well, but we took it out (of the rotation), partly because it had been so wet and partly because it didn't look like it would cash-flow as well as other crops," Schlechter says.

The corn went pretty well -- maybe 75 to 135 bushels an acre, he says. "If we can stay above 100 (bushels) it's not too bad. Of course the price -- where it's at now -- can fix a lot of wounds as well."


Soybeans averaged about 27 bushels an acre, which is less than normal. "We didn't catch any rain through most of July and into August. If you don't catch rain that time of year -- here anyway -- the soybeans are going to suffer."

The Schlechters have about 500 stock cows. They background-feed calves from those cows, depending on the year. Some years, they buy additional calves to background-feed. "We'll buy some yearlings, like now, to put on grass next spring, in May. Sometimes we finish those calves here, or sometimes we send them on (to feedlots), depending on what we've got time and room for, and depending whether the price is worth keeping them here or not."

This year they kept their yearlings after they came off grass, where generally they would have finished them in a custom lot.

"We're finishing some in a custom lot and some here," Schlechter says. "A little over half are here. You've got to pay yardage and feed cost in a custom yard and our costs probably aren't as high as (the yard) would need. To make ends meet, we'll have the yardage back in our pocket instead of giving it to somebody else." The Schlechters are hoping the market will be stronger when it comes time to sell.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What To Read Next
Get Local