Western South Dakota farmers eye prices, dry planting conditions

Farmers in western counties of the Dakotas are concerned about drought, blowing soil and fires in the spring 2021 crop year.

A 40-50 mph winds and 70 mph gusts picked up topsoil in a winter wheat field, about 15 miles south of Fort Pierre, S.D., on March 29, 2021. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

DRAPER, S.D. — There’s no “typical” for weather in the Pierre, S.D., area, but there’s no doubt it’s dry now.

“It’s something you take in stride,” said Ross Nielsen, of Draper, S.D., about 15 miles south of Fort Pierre, S.D. “You hope for better conditions, but you deal with what you have and make plans and work around it.”

Blowing soil obscures the the horizon like a fog on March 29, 2021, over the headquarters of Nielsen Ranches of Draper, S.D., near the end of a day with 40- to 50-mph sustained winds, and grass fires nearby in the county. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

On March 29, 2021, little field work had been done. It was dry, and the wind was blowing 40 mph and 50 mph, gusting up to 70 mph. A few miles west, conditions worsened at a grass fire that had started north of Interstate Highway 90. The fire jumped across the road to the south, closing the interstate for about 2 hours between Kadoka and Murdo, while crews went at it with big equipment and pumpers.


Nielsen and his wife, Karen, under their Nielsen Ranches moniker, do no-till farming on about 3,500 acres. They raise wheat, corn, oats, milo and sunflowers. They have 450 head of cows. About two-thirds are calved in the spring and one-third in the spring. Their daughter, Kady, is coming back into the operation after college.

Old Glory was standing straight out in 40 to 50 mph sustained winds, and 70 mph gusts on March 29, 2021, at the Nielsen Ranches headquarters at Draper, S.D., about 15 miles south of Fort Pierre. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The family has seen droughts before. Nielsen’s grandfather homesteaded about 10 miles north of Draper in 1916. The family has adapted to “fluctuations” in rainfall.

Ross Nielsen of Draper, S.D., runs Nielsen Ranches, a 3,500-acre farming and livestock enterprise, with his wife, Karen. His daughter, Kady, is joining the operation. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“We don’t like (droughts) but we try to co-exist with them,” he said. “We try to carry enough feed over. We do have a lot of options with the acres of farmland, especially the stover that’s left over with the crop aftermath.

“That helps us, especially if we can bale some straw. Now that we have an ethanol plant in Onida (S.D.), we do have close access to either ‘modified’ or wet distillers grain if we need to,” he said. “We’ll kind of use whatever we need. We have had to sell down (cows) a few times, but we’ll just work with what nature gives us.”

The Nielsens shift their marketing according to conditions and weather.


Fall calves are usually weaned and sold in the first week of June. Nielsen has a feedlot that can background-feed about 700 calves, but that’s been empty the past couple of years, based on pricing. “It’s just kind of a matter of opportunity.”

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19-inch average

The picturesque Nielsen headquarters is 15 miles south of Fort Pierre, S.D., just west of U.S. Highway 83. Average annual precipitation is 19 inches to 20 inches.

In 2020, the Nielsens had a “big deluge” in about a month’s time — 12 inches from June 6 to July 8. After that they had 1.25 inches until the snow fell in October.

“We had really good grass growth, didn’t have any green-up last fall,” he said. They needed snow to get winter wheat up last fall. Conditions vary within a few miles. Some Nielsen land 12 miles to the west had 3 inches to 4 inches more rain, so 90% of the winter wheat came up.

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

Then they had no moisture until late February 2021, when they had about 2 feet of snow. “We had three different snows. That came slow and melted into the ground,” Nielsen said. They had a half-inch of rain on March 27, 2021.


There is almost no subsoil moisture right now, Nielsen said.

“If you dig down to 4 to 5 feet you’ll find pretty much just powder,” he said. “We really don’t have anything. We used it all in our good grass growth of last summer and don’t have anything to replenish in the past six to eight months.”

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 are 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

Nielsen has been looking at long-term weather forecasts — two weeks to 90, or even 120, days, out — which are calling for warming and above-normal moisture. “What is ‘normal’ moisture, in their opinion?” he said. “If we’re going to be 80 degrees rather than 55 degrees, which would be normal. If we have above-normal moisture, that’s going to be used up quicker than with ‘normal’ spring-type weather.”

What’s ‘typical’

The recent moisture made a lot of difference, Nielsen said, but days approaching the 80s and strong winds can quickly deplete topsoil moisture.

“If we could have a couple more (rains) like that before the first of May, that would put us in pretty good stead to start with.” That would get them to June 1 with some good grass.


Blowing soil blurs the horizon on March 29, 2021, south of Fort Pierre, S.D. 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. Photo taken March 29, 2021, Draper, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Then there’s that word, again — “typical.”

It would be “typical” to snag 2 to 3 inches of rain by the end of April. It would be “typical” moderate temperatures by May 1. And it might be “typical" to get the same amount in May. “That would set us up for the heat of the summer,” he said.

It would be especially nice to count on production with current strong commodity prices. Nielsen remembers prices were strong between 2002 and 2007. That’s when there was $6 per bushel to $7 per bushel corn. But the Nielsens were living with dry conditions.

“We pretty well missed the ride on that deal,” Nielsen said of the prices bubble. He's philosophical about that. “All we can do is put a marketing plan forward and use your insurance, and whatever opportunities are given to you. If Mother Nature gives it to you, then you go with it. If not you have to figure it out.”

More drought planning resources:

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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