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After two rounds of spring storms, farmers and ranchers are ready for blue skies to smile on them

The moisture from two late April storms was needed, but also has caused problems for farmers and ranchers.

Power lines and power poles are down in front of homes in a snowy scene.
Thousands of people in western North Dakota and eastern Montana lost power following a powerful late April storm that included rain, freezing rain and snow. This photo, from Crosby, North Dakota, was submitted to the National Weather Service by Don Anderson. Parts of northwest North Dakota are not expected to get power back until early May, further stressing many ranchers.
Courtesy / National Weather Service
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After consecutive April storms that dropped as much as 4 feet of snow in the western part of the northern Plains and excessive moisture on eastern areas, farmers and ranchers hope that calmer weather conditions will prevail in May.

Although the moisture from the snow was welcomed, especially in western North Dakota and Montana, which have been in the grips of a severe drought, the heavy, wet snow, combined with cold temperatures is taking a toll on cattle. Meanwhile, in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, excessive rain is delaying spring planting.

More moisture, likely in the form of rain, remained in the forecast for the end of April and beginning of May, as of April 27.

In McKenzie County, North Dakota, like in others in western North Dakota, the high winds that accompanied the storms the weeks of April 11 and April 18 made it difficult to accurately measure how much snow fell. In some spots the wind whipped the snow into 12-feet high drifts, and in others swept the ground bare.

Unofficial reports are that snow totals from the two storms ranged from 30 to 38 inches, said Devan Leo, North Dakota State University agricultural Extension agent for McKenzie County.

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A John Deere tractor with front-wheel assist and a loader bucker navigates through a muddy corral. Areas around the corral are covered in snow.
A tractor navigates through a muddy corral near Richardton, North Dakota. The second of two powerful April storms left much of North Dakota and parts of surrounding states snowy and wet, stressing ranchers and livestock while delaying planting in the region.
Contributed / Judy Hoff

Calf deaths during the first storm weren’t as severe as anticipated, but during the week of April 25 the young animals were suffering from the after-affects of the second weekend storm, which began with cold, wet rain and ended with heavy snow and winds that gusted to as high as 60 miles per hour.

Some calves were showing signs of pneumonia and others were getting scours after being exposed to the severe weather, Leo said.

Besides treating sick calves, some ranchers also were without electrical power because the rain that fell at the onset of the second storm, which was over the weekend of April 22-24, turned to ice that toppled transmission lines.

More than a thousand lines were downed in northwest North Dakota counties that included Burke, Williams and Divide, and power was not expected to be restored to some ranches until at least the end of the first week in May.

Most ranchers have generators, but the price of fuel to run the tractors that power the machines is expensive, which is burdening them with additional financial stress, Leo said.

While the long-term effect of the moisture on drought-stricken pastures is unclear, in the short-term, she is concerned that there is potential that the snow damaged them.

“The grass was already coming up, and we were in the second leaf stage. Hopefully, this doesn’t stunt it or set it back,” Leo said.

Meanwhile, there's also potential that the grass that had started growing could be suffocated by the huge drifts from the storms, she said.

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It’s already clear that the snow delayed spring planting.

Farmers had delayed field work because conditions were dry, and they were hoping to get moisture, and now conditions are too wet, Leo said. It likely will be late May or early June before crops are seeded.

In the northwest corner of North Dakota, in Burke County, about half of the residents were still without power on April 26, said Dan Folske, the county’s NDSU agricultural Extension agent. Some of the ranchers were powering their operations with generators, but others ranchers’ generators hadn't been used in several years, and they discovered they weren’t in working condition.

Most of the cows survived the several feet of snow that fell in the county during the storms the weeks of April 11 and April 18, but some calves born during the storms died later from hypothermia after being exposed to the cold, wet conditions, Folske said.

He encouraged ranchers to document their herd losses with the Farm Service Agency so they can get financial assistance through the Livestock Indemnity Program.

Meanwhile, the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and North Dakota Stockmen’s Foundation have launched a “Hope after Haley” Disaster Relief Fund. The two non-profit organizations started the program with a $40,000 initial contribution and are seeking more donors.

The donations will be combined and distributed to North Dakota cattle ranchers later this year through an application and nomination process. A committee made up of ranchers will select the recipients most in need and distribute the money to them.

The fund will accept checks to the NDSF, 407 Second St. , Bismarck, ND 58504. Checks should be made payable to the NDSF, with“Hope for Haley” written on the memo line. Donations also can be made by credit card at https://app.givingheartsday.org/#/charity/1576 .

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Besides the toll the storms have taken on ranches, Folske is concerned about the delay it has caused with spring planting. Farmers typically would have seeds in the ground, and the wet conditions have delayed field work by at least another two weeks, he said.

In southwest North Dakota, ranchers in late April were dealing with the aftermath of the most recent storm that, in Billings and Slope counties, began with heavy rain that chilled calves before the precipitation turned to heavy, wet snow, and caused sickness and death.

“Everybody said the second storm was worse than the first: rain, then snow, then cold. Those young calves got wet,” said Kurt Froelich, agricultural Extension agent in Slope and Billings counties. “It’s just a lot of stress on those animals.”

Meanwhile, as the snow melted, ranchers also were discovering the deaths of livestock that had been buried in the snow.

The late-season storms rank with the worst Froelich has seen in his nearly 40 years as a county agent.

“It puts a lot of stress on a lot of people,” he said.

In eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, heavy rains — as much as 4 inches — that fell during the storm the week of April 18 caused rivers to spill over their banks, washed out township roads and created caverns in fields.

Near Hatton, North Dakota, rushing water washed out a drainage ditch , creating a canyon-like opening that is 300-feet long and 30-feet deep.

The excessive rains also further delayed spring planting. Many eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota fields either are saturated or have standing water on them. Meanwhile, daytime and nighttime temperatures are double digits below the average for this time of year, so soils are cold and slow to dry.

Despite the recent brutal weather conditions, county agents are hopeful that the benefits of the moisture in areas that were suffering drought will outweigh the burden.

“We’re hoping that this breaks the drought, at the very least," Leo said

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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