Dry conditions threaten crop yields, boost fire danger

Farm Forum

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Dry conditions and drought are threatening crop yields and boosting fire danger in South Dakota. Here’s a look at the dry conditions, their effects across the state and what officials are doing about it:

Lay of the land

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows parched conditions in western South Dakota, with pockets of severe to extreme drought in the Black Hills region. Areas in the central, southwestern and northeastern parts of the state are also experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Recent rains in northeastern South Dakota have eased the situation, but “they’re not out of the woods with this heat,” said Dennis Todey, a former state climatologist who now works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Drought Monitor estimates that over 188,000 people in South Dakota are in drought areas.


Drought has exacerbated fire conditions in western South Dakota, which is in a region “right in the bullseye of the nation” for potential blazes over the next 30 days, said Jim Strain, deputy director of the Division of Wildland Fire at the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

“We are very concerned for the potential of large fire growth and the occurrence of many fires due to continuing drought and dryness conditions in western South Dakota,” Strain said.

Drought contributes to fire occurrence and explosive fire growth in prairie and forest areas by drying out potential fuels such as dead grasses and logs.

South Dakota has seen several large fires since the start of the year, including the Cold Fire in the Pringle area and the Crow Peak wildfire sparked by lightning on June 24 that torched more than 2,700 acres, or over 4 square miles. A smaller wildfire in Rapid City burned this week.

State action

Gov. Dennis Daugaard this week activated the state Drought Task Force for the first time since July 2012 to keep an eye on thirsty conditions and share information among government agencies and other organizations.

The governor also issued an emergency fire declaration for 13 drought-affected counties in western and central South Dakota, making a single engine air tanker plane to be based in Pierre available to respond to fires with the state bearing nearly all the cost.

David Bright, a pilot with Montana-based New Frontier Aviation, will fly the firefighting airplane. Typically, at an optimal drop height of 120 feet, a trigger on the flight stick opens a clamshell gate reminiscent of an older bomb bay, releasing retardant from the tanker plane to contain the blaze so people on the ground can put it out, he said.

Bright said it’s hard to know how this job will compare with the others over the years.

“Sometimes we’ve sat there for 30 days and not turned a prop,” he said. “Sometimes you go like a son-of-a-gun for two weeks.”

Farming and ranching

The dry circumstances in western South Dakota have caused reduced productivity in pasture and rangeland for feeding cattle, Todey said.

Mark Hollenbeck, a rancher near Edgemont, said pastures are getting short quickly. He’s already sold cows and is sending cattle to Nebraska, where there is forage available — for a price.

Hollenbeck said he’s also noticed neighbors moving livestock out of the area.

“I don’t know how many thousands of dollars, but it will be a significant impact,” Hollenbeck said. “I’m basically paying somebody else to do what I should be doing.”

Recent rain in the dry northeast was crucial for rescuing area farmers, said Matt Brandenburger, operations manager for the Wheaton-Dumont Co-op Elevator.

“This rain is why we’re predicting our yields will be average,” he said. “This rain was the savior. Without this rain we were going to have no crop.”

But farmers will still need sustaining precipitation or a significant downpour by the middle of August to avert a “disaster,” Brandenburger said.

Crystal ball

According to the National Weather Service’s latest seasonal drought outlook, drought conditions are expected to persist in a pocket of far-western South Dakota through Sept. 30.

Todey said South Dakota is likely to experience hotter temperatures over the next couple of weeks, and the western part of the state tends not to get significant precipitation at this time of year. That means it’s difficult for the situation to improve right now.

“What you hope for is that it doesn’t get too much worse,” he said.