Heavy central North Dakota snowpack could slow planting progress and lead to high prevented planting acres
Deep snowpack in parts of North Dakota is putting into question when exactly farmers in central and eastern North Dakota might be able to get tractors in fields.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service’s weekly crop progress reports for North Dakota started coming out this month. The first April report, reflecting conditions for the week ending April 2, 2023, noted that there were 0.2 days suitable for fieldwork on average in the state.
But Monica Fitterer, North Dakota State University Extension ag and natural resources agent for Kidder County — located in central North Dakota just east of Bismarck — said when she submitted her contributions to the report, it didn’t take much thought to put down that zero days had been suitable to be in the field.
“As far as getting in the field, it’s probably going to be late. Some fields we’re probably not going to get into. There’s going to be a lot of prevent plant acres, crop insurance stuff,” she said on April 3. “I have no idea when we’re going to be able to get in. It’s going to be so wet.”
Central North Dakota as of the first week of April remained mired in one of the snowiest if not the snowiest winter on record in some places. Beginning with blizzards in November and continuing through a storm that pushed through April 4-5, the ground has been covered in a thick pack of snow for five months. Some periods of melting in January and February and in late March and the first couple days of April have done little to lessen the layers.
It’s not just that there’s a lot of snow on the ground, said Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, which services western and central North Dakota. It’s the immense amount of water equivalent that remains in that snow.
Far southwestern North Dakota nearly has “run out of snow,” and the Badlands in the west, prior to the April 4-5 storm, had about a half inch of water equivalent. But that pre-storm estimate was considerably higher heading east, with both Bismarck in the central and the Red River Valley at the eastern part of the state sitting in excess of 4 inches of water equivalent. Schlag said areas between Bismarck and Jamestown — and especially the James River Valley south of Jamestown — had mind-boggling amounts of water left in the snow.
“There are legitimately places in the James River Basin right now, especially south of Jamestown, that have between 8 and 10 inches of water equivalent sitting on the ground,” he said.
He expected the April 4-5 storm to add an inch of water to those totals in some places.
That’s putting into question when exactly farmers in central and eastern North Dakota might be able to get tractors in fields. Schlag agrees with Fitterer’s assessment that more acres will be put into the prevented planting program, which compensates farmers on acres on which it was impossible to plant prior to the Risk Management Agency’s deadline for obtaining crop insurance for the intended crops.
“Anecdotally, this is a perfect year for having expectations … where farmers can’t get in in time for their crop insurance,” he said. “This is going to be a year where I expect to see an above normal number of acres for prevent plant.”
The snow was expected to start melting in earnest over Easter weekend.
“The melt pattern looks like it’s here to stay,” Schlag said. He said that in places toward western North Dakota, where near-normal temperatures were expected, “we’ll be cleaning up that snowpack pretty quick” and farmers might get in the field sooner than later.
But farther east, where that heavier snowpack remains, the snow will be harder to break up, and what melts will be trying to get to the rivers and streams. Schlag said there could be ice jams, overland flooding, rising streams, roads under water, and high water on Prairie Potholes, ditches and anywhere that holds water.
On the positive side, the soils are going to be able to take in quite a bit of moisture.
“Last year, we had a very significant drought that really started in the latter half of the summer,” Schlag said. “That dried off our soil unbelievably.”
Some soils were in the second percentile for soil moistures at the end of the growing season, which Schlag said means the average person only sees soil that dry once every 30 years or so. Then, the November blizzards put an insulating layer of snow on the ground at a time when the soil was still relatively warm. The snow has continued to insulate the soil throughout the season.
“We look at (North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network) soil temperatures, and they’re very warm,” he said.
The NDAWN reports for April 4 showed soil temperatures across the state and into eastern Montana and western Minnesota ranging largely in the low 30s. Those dry, warm conditions in the ground mean much of the snowmelt will be able to sink into the soil, replenishing the soil moisture lost in the dry late summer.
In Kidder County, Fitterer said the top soil moisture levels she’s seen are improving, and she expects the deeper soil will also get some of the moisture as it warms up and the melting progresses.
Now Schlag said the question is, how much water can the soil take in?
Prior to the March and April storms, he said he thought maybe three-quarters of the snowmelt would be able to make its way into the ground.
“I don’t think that’s true anymore,” he said.
Especially between Bismarck and Jamestown — and even more so south of Jamestown — he expects the water equivalent is more than the soil will be able to hold, especially given that the late season lends itself to a fast warmup where there might be a lot of snow melting at once rather than a gradual warmup where the melt can seep into the soil.
Schlag’s first year with the NWS in Bismarck was 2008. The winter of 2008-09 was another snowy winter, and a quick warmup in March 2009 led to flooding on Beaver Creek in Linton, located southeast of Bismarck, and on Knife River in Beulah, located northwest of Bismarck, as well as a flood caused by an ice jam on the Missouri River in Bismarck. Overland flooding also was very common throughout the region. Similar scenarios are possible this year.
There were 1,937,659 acres put into prevented planting in 2009 in North Dakota .
“Here we are, a month later in the season,” than the 2009 warmup, Schlag said.
The Crop Progress Report released April 2 for North Dakota said, "Reports indicated that, on average, producers intend to begin fieldwork on May 5."
Schlag said it will be important to watch the NWS website — weather.gov — in the next two weeks, as he expects flooding situations to “unfold very quickly.”
In Kidder County, Fitterer said there are possibilities of road flooding and problems getting to fields because of high water; however, most people still are more focused on the task at hand: getting through the snow and the rest of the winter season.
With calving well underway, producers are more concerned about how to get cattle to dry ground when they can’t reach pastures because of snow, how to keep corrals dry, and how to deal with dwindling hay and feed supplies given the long winter they’ve already endured.
Many ranchers also are worried about what the melting will mean for their calves. Wet, muddy conditions tend to help spread diseases, and she expects by the end of April or early May, many calves in her county will be fighting scours.
“I’m predicting some pretty significant death losses” in calves, she said.
Keeping calves as dry as possible and checking often to catch diseases early are the best bets for preventing the springtime maladies, Fitterer said.
And in the meantime, farmers and ranchers are just trying to keep their heads up.
“We’re just trying to stay positive through all of this winter weather,” she said.