Pastures and hay: A fighting chance

Farm Forum

Hay and pasture conditions in Dickinson (N.D.) Livestock Auction’s trade area were so bad earlier this spring that the company had to turn away business. So many hard-pressed ranchers needed to sell cattle that the company couldn’t accommodate them all.

“Things were really bad,” says Larry Schnell, who manages the business. Dickinson is in southwest North Dakota, which, along with neighboring southeast Montana and northwest South Dakota, had been hammered by the drought that began in the summer of 2012.

Then, in the middle of May, the skies opened up and heavy, repeated rains fell across most of Dickinson Livestock Auction’s trade area. Some areas received as much as 12 inches in less than a month — nearly as much precipitation as they normally receive in an entire year.

The rains revived pastures and hayfields so much that Schnell says his area now “looks like Ireland.” Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle” because of its lush green grass.

If the Dickinson area hadn’t received rain when it did, “We would have a disaster,” with ranchers forced to sell even more cattle, Schnell says.

‘Average’ hay crop

Steve Brooks, a Bowman, N.D., rancher, says he already had sold some cattle and would have needed to sell more if the rains hadn’t come.

Even with the heavy rains, he expects only an average hay crop in his area. Cool temperatures and lack of moisture hampered grass earlier in the growing season, limiting its potential.

If the rains hadn’t fallen, however, there would have been almost no hay, Brooks says.

The rains also recharged water holes that dried up during the drought, he says.

One negative: Brooks says he’s heard reports that some producers have found weevils in alfalfa fields and sprayed pesticide to limit damage done by the insects.

Not every livestock producer in drought-stricken areas has benefitted from plentiful rains, says Adele Harty, Rapid City-based South Dakota State University Extension cow-calf field specialist.

“It’s patchy,” she says, noting that some producers received relatively little moisture, while other producers a few miles away received heavy rains.

But overall hay and pasture conditions in her area of South Dakota are far better than they had been, she says.

Drought Monitor says

Fifty-four percent of South Dakota, including most of the state west of the Missouri River, is in drought or abnormally dry, according to the June 27 report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of federal and academic scientists.

That’s an improvement from the 67 percent of the state that was in drought or abnormally dry a week earlier. It’s an even bigger improvement from three months ago, when all of South Dakota was in drought or abnormally dry.

The drought’s severity is greatly reduced, even in the parts of South Dakota where it remains. Three months ago, about two-thirds of the state was extremely or exceptionally dry, the two most severe drought categories. In the June 27 report, only 0.22 percent of South Dakota fell in those two categories.

In Minnesota, 2.5 percent of the state is in drought or abnormally dry, down from 7 percent a week earlier and 45 percent three months ago.

A chunk of north-central Minnesota remains dry, according to the June 27 report.

In North Dakota, only 0.4 percent of the state is in drought or abnormally dry, down from 10 percent a week earlier and 66 percent three months ago.

Only a sliver of south-central North Dakota remains dry, according to the June 27 report.

In Montana, about 15 percent of the state is in drought or abnormally dry, up from 13.6 percent a week earlier, but down from 19 percent three months ago.

Parts of south-central and southwest Montana remain dry, according to the June 27 report.

More rain needed

Area pastures and hayfields will need more rain during the growing season. Agriculturalists in southwest and southeast Montana and northwest South Dakota often say their normally arid region is never more than two weeks from drought.

Still, the recent rains give agriculturalists in the region a little cushion.

Schnell, reminded of the adage about being two weeks from drought, says, “Well, now we’re three weeks.”