'Fates sealed' for some crops as drought drags on in North Dakota

Although rain has fallen in southwestern North Dakota over the past week, agriculture officials and those in the weather world do not foresee a good end result for most crops in the area this year.

Although rain has fallen in southwestern North Dakota over the past week, agriculture officials and those in the weather world do not foresee a good end result for most crops in the area this year.

North Dakota is in the worse statewide drought since 2006, according to Adnan Akyuz, professor of climatological practice at North Dakota State University and North Dakota's state climatologist.

The U.S. Drought Monitor published Thursday, July 20, shows more than 6 percent of North

Dakota is in an exceptional drought, the highest rating on the monitor. This includes a large portion of Stark County, as well as Divide, Mountrail, Ward, McLean, Dunn, Mercer, Oliver, Morton, Grant, Hettinger, Slope, Bowman and Adams counties.

"This is the first time since Aug. 15, 2006, the state experienced the 'exceptional drought' status," Akyuz said.


The only counties that are drought-free in the state are Grand Forks and Nelson, and parts of the counties adjacent to them.

"It is unfortunate that no immediate relief from Mother Nature is on the horizon

during the next three-month period," Akyuz said. "Even if the rains return, it will

be too late for the regions experiencing irreversible damage."

Allen Schlag, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said the 2017 drought data matches or beats previous droughts in dryness, such as 2006 and 1988.

He said the southwest portion of the state always seems to be at least a bit dryer than the rest.

"I sometimes call it the Desert Southwest," Schlag said. "It's always dry there."

'Fate is sealed' for some crops


Schlag also made a comparison to the droughts of the 1930s, noting that drought spanned multiple years. However, he said agricultural practices are different than they were then, so the outcomes and look of the drought are different now.

Although some of southwest North Dakota received significant amounts of snowfall this winter, Schlag said that did not help farmers much because the dry conditions began back in late-February and early-March. In March a "gentle melt" began, giving some farmers an opportunity to get seeds planted a bit earlier than normal, Schlag said.

"We're not going to see a lot of help for early planted crops like wheat, durum and oats," Schlag said. "Their fates are already sealed."

He added that mid- to late-planted crops, like corn and soybeans, could see a recovery. Pastures with native vegetation could green up, but "it is unfortunate" that it is too late in the season for them to produce a lot of volume.

While parts of southwest North Dakota received rain on Thursday, Ryan Buetow, an agronomist with the NDSU extension center in Dickinson, said "it's not really going to help the crops too much at this point." He said stress during certain times, such as planting, will affect the end yield.

"For a lot of these plants the hot and dry days have really stressed the plant and made them mature a little bit early," he said. "Your crops like spring wheat, barley, peas, lentils, they all matured a little bit faster than normal and they're definitely under stress because they're a lot shorter and instead of putting on multiple pods and heads they've kind of conserved the energy they have and making one or two heads."

If temperatures are above 80 degrees during the day and 60 at night it will speed the process up, Buetow said.

"Dry soil is causing air temperatures to be higher than they would be if the soil were moist," Akyuz said. "Warm air temperature is increasing the moisture demand for the air, causing the soil to parch even further. This is a feedback of a wicked cycle that western North Dakota is trying to get out of."


Buetow said crops are using the last two years worth of moisture, noting that some "decent" winter wheat yields were "really going off the past couple years' moisture."

"We can't run off of last year's moisture for forever," Buetow said. "We eventually need to refill that soil moisture."

Jerid Janikowski, who has land near the North Dakota-South Dakota border, said a continuing drought makes him look at his management plans closely.

"If you're a rancher you're going to go into the fall looking at your grass situation, your hay situation and what you've got for cow numbers and you're going to make a judgement call at that point and time 'Can I maintain what I've got? How many do I have to sell to get through?" he said. "I think you're going to come into spring and if it hasn't changed through spring, then you're going to have to look at that plan again."

He said he experienced a poor hay crop last year. Some of his summer grass was affected by last year's drought from the South Dakota border south, he said it is better this year, but it is not a lot better.

"We've already moved cows out of pastures that we typically run in until August," Janikowski said. "I'm right here on the bubble. You go north of where I live and you go east of where I live, they're a lot dryer than I am. ... If it's a multiple year deal, I don't know if I'd be able to hang on."

He said while financial institutions have helped people during the current drought, he does not know if this can continue over three to five years. Janikowski also noted the help from the federal government has been good.

"I think our people in Washington, D.C. are doing everything they can to help us," he said. "They got CRP opened up early and that is a tremendous help to a lot of people. I'm just very satisfied with what they've gotten done at this point and time. ... It's not a cure all, and it doesn't work for every person, but those that it works for it helped tremendously."


Janikowski added that it may take time for land to recover from the drought.

"We have a bad summer and then you go into a bad winter where you need more feed than you'd normally need, that's what's detrimental," he said. "It's one thing buying hay, it's another buying a bunch more hay to get through a bad winter. ... It's going to take a year or two for some people for their grass to recover from this. It doesn't repair itself overnight."

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