Thoughts of spring drought loom over region

Elizabeth Varin
Farm Forum

Are we in for another drought?

The answers aren’t yet clear but the region has had what can be considered a snow drought, according to South Dakota State University Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards.

“We don’t see a lot of changes on the drought situation typically over the winter time, but we really haven’t had much snow here this season,” Edwards said. “For example, Aberdeen is about 17 inches below average on snowfall for the season, measuring about 6-and-a-half inches so far.”

There’s been quite a bit of bare ground, which has a variety of effects, she said. Winter wheat crops need snow on the ground to insulate the plants from temperature changes, both warm and cold. Snowfall also melts to runoff into stock ponds and could provide a base of moisture in the soil for the start of the growing season.

According to the drought report from Feb. 7 to 13, cold prevailed in areas of the Midwest, which includes Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. That region welcomed snowfall in areas from Iowa into southern Michigan. However, drought conditions intensified in other areas.

In the high plains region, which includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado, additional snow in central portions of the region contrasted with dry conditions elsewhere.

Earlier this month, portions of southeast North Dakota, northeast South Dakota and western Minnesota moved from abnormally dry to moderate drought conditions. However, the rest of the Dakotas remained under moderate to severe drought conditions.

North Dakota looks to head into another year of drought conditions for various reasons, said North Dakota State Climatologist F. Adnan Akyüz. The professor of climatological practice at North Dakota State University said some areas are scarred by last year’s drought.

While the state headed into 2017 on a wet note, sparse precipitation in March, April and May had much of the moisture in the soil depleted at the beginning of the growing season.

In 2017 North Dakota faced its worst drought since 2006, and heading into 2018 the area is pretty dry, he said. The dryness will take a toll come spring.

In addition, snowfall is between 40 and 50 percent of normal levels. Currently, the state is “as vulnerable as we get. Snow is not there yet, soil moisture from previous season is below normal, and the forecast is not showing much promise,” he said.

Snow in the region is a great resource for spring planting, and it insulates soil from air temperature changes, he said. Frost is a lot deeper this year than previous years.

With less snowfall in both east and west South Dakota, there are potential problems farmers and ranchers need to aware of, Edwards said. There could be issues with overgrazing and water quality problems.

“We at SDSU and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) have worked with individual ranchers on their own drought plans tailored to their operations so they know where they can get supplemental feed, they know where they can sell their animals, they know where they can move animals if they have to,” she said. “We advocate or support that each operation look at what they can do and set their own trigger dates for making different decisions.”

In general, though, April and May will be a critical time for moisture this year, she added.

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South Dakota State University Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards works in her Aberdeen office Feb. 14. Farm Forum photo by Elizabeth Varin