Historic Drought Hammers Dakotas, Montana

Crops in the Dakotas and Montana are baking on an anvil of severe drought and extreme heat, as bone-dry conditions force growers and ranchers to make difficult decisions regarding cattle, corn and wheat.

Loss and risk are an assumption in farming; devastation is not. Abandoned acres, fields with zero emergence, stunted crops, anemic yields, wheat rolled into hay, and early herd culls comprise a tapestry of disaster for many producers. When agriculture damage is tallied after a withered spring and summer, crop insurance questions will be of heavy concern for many producers, particularly with a new farm bill on the horizon.

Clark Price grows corn, soybeans and wheat, and raises cattle in Oliver County. His operation in the southwest quadrant of North Dakota is arguably located in the epicenter of affected ground: “Go to South Dakota or Montana and they’re in the same ballpark, if not worse. The grass is gone and people are hurting.”

Stick a shovel in Price’s ground and turn over 8” of parched soil. Since April 1, Price has recorded just 2” of rainfall – well short of the 8” to 10” of precipitation he typically receives.

Price’s scorched wheat fields could yield a feeble 10 bu. per acre. His corn is staggered from 2’ to 5’ tall and likely will yield from rock bottom to 45 bu. per acre. “A lot of us will have to bale wheat and corn. There’s just no way around it with all the hay that simply didn’t get cut,” he says.

And soybeans? Price’s soybeans are flowering at a frail 10” tall, and he doesn’t expect them to make anything. Zero.

His pasture hilltops never greened up to break dormancy and he estimates pasture production at 35% of normal. Many producers in his community are culling herds early, pulling 300 lb. to 400 lb. calves to conserve feed to maintain base livestock numbers. “Nobody has enough hay to make it through winter and I’ve heard of people driving 200 miles just to buy bales,” he explains.

Price, 52, believes the current drought is the most extreme he’s experienced in his farming career: “It was tough in 1988, but right now it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Dan Wogsland; executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association (NDGGA), estimates 40% of the western North Dakota wheat crop has been rolled into hay: “As you leave the Red River Valley and go west, it gets increasingly dry across the state. North Dakota wheat is in serious trouble. It hurts to see so many bales…

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