Pierre in center of severe drought region; winter wheat suffering

Farm Forum

Mark Venner farms 16 miles north of Pierre on the east side of the Missouri River, raising several kinds of wheat, corn and sunflowers as well as cattle, with a front-row seat on the driest first four months of the year on record.

The Air Force veteran is right at ground zero, as it happens, to an area recently rated as in severe drought by the experts.

“Every day we drive around and look at our crops,” Venner said. “An inch or two would be great but it’s got to become a rainy spell. A rain is not going to do the deal.”

The National Weather Service pointed out over the weekend that Pierre had its driest first four months of the year since records began 107 years ago. Only 1.15 inch of precipitation has fallen from Jan. 1 to May 1 in Pierre, 3.1 inches below the 30-year norm for the period.

Thirteen other South Dakota communities also had their driest first four months, but none have weather records going back that far. Dozens of other communities across the state are near their record deficits of water for the year so far. Philip, west of the Missouri, has seen only 0.53 inch of precipitation so far this year, the least of any site reported by the weather service and the least in 58 years there for the first four months of the year.

On May 1, the weather service reported that Pierre and Fort Pierre were in the center of a large area under “severe drought,” after six months or more of well-below normal precipitation.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has classified central South Dakota in severe drought, including eastern Stanley County, Hughes County, Sully and southeast Potter County as well as several other counties, plus Minnesota counties of Traverse and Big Stone.

Venner didn’t need a weather man to tell, of course.

“The only winter wheat I planted was organic and that means I had to till the ground before I planted it to kill weeds, since you can’t use chemicals. The bottom line is I have organic white winter wheat and organic red winter wheat and the white wheat is all dead. It looked a little green early on, it was really patchy but this dry spell so long with no long soaking spring rains at all, has done it.”

“The organic red winter wheat is very patchy, so when and if it does rain, I’m going to have a weed issue. Organic farming, because there are no chemicals used, is much more challenging when there’s not adequate moisture.”

Most winter wheat in the state, planted last fall, is not organic but planted under no-till methods. It’s mostly in less than good condition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly crop progress report: 12 percent very poor, 27 percent poor, 41 percent fair and 20 percent good as of May 3. None of the crop was rated excellent in the survey.

One thing about the dry spring: planting is ahead of schedule as farmers got in early.

“On the other side, the spring wheat I planted no-till,” Venner said. “That’s up and we are still in a position where a rain would save it and make us a crop. You go out and dig down in the soil and under that first inch or two that is dry, there is some moisture.”

The state’s farmers had planted 92 percent of their hard red spring wheat acres by May 3, well ahead of the five-year average of 60 percent planted by now, USDA reported.

And one good sign that the drought hasn’t struck so deep and hard yet: 56 percent of the spring wheat crop was emerging on May 3, a big jump from 10 percent a week ago and 29 percent on average by May 3.

But potential yields could be burning up already although the plants still are green, Venner said.

Because of the no-till farming used on most acres, which hoards winter snows and holds soil moisture away from the sun under crop residue from last year, the drought’s effects are dampened. But water always is needed.

“In South Dakota, there’s many ways to say it but a lot of old timers will say you’re always two weeks away from a drought,” Venner said.

That’s a little too true right now, he said, as there hasn’t been any real precipitation since well into last year, with an “open winter” of little snow.

Venner tried something unconventional this year. He planted durum, the wheat mostly grown in North Dakota and used to make pasta. The contract price offered was about twice spring wheat’s prices, so it seemed worth the risk, he said.

“I planted that the last week in March and it came right up, all in no-till fields, so we saved some of our fall moisture,” he said. “That actually looks the best.”

Wheat is a hardy, dry-weather crop that often catches diseases in wet conditions, so this year could still turn out OK or better, Venner said.

He’s holding off a little before he plants corn, hoping for rains and also will put in sunflowers.

Venner also has about 60 cows and is most of the way through calving so they are still close in, not yet out on pasture, but eating dry feed. The open winter meant he was able to keep his cows out on corn stalks longer than normal, so he has some extra hay now.

But harvesting hay this year doesn’t look great.

Checking his alfalfa fields, he knows this: “I do not have a first cutting of alfalfa.”

Just not enough spring moisture. Now he’s considering replacing some of the bad winter wheat fields and putting in a crop of millet or Sudan grass to produce a forage crop.

His father and mother started this farm in 1958, and he returned after an Air Force career to farm it.

This is the driest spring he remembers.

From his place Venner can see the swollen Missouri River made into Lake Oahe.

“It’s surreal, I can see all kinds of water and we’re kicking the dust up here.”

“So we pray. God’s got the stick, He knows we need rain, so we’ll count on that.”