Recent rains, snow in SE South Dakota could mitigate drought for farmers' spring planting

Rebekah Tuchscherer
rtuchscherer@gannett.com

The fall harvest was a prosperous one for many farmers, thanks to a dry fall.

But when that lack of rainfall turned into a winter without much snow, drought conditions gradually became regular dinner table conversation and many started to worry that spring planting might not be so easy.

Most of South Dakota is suffering from a moderate drought, according to recent data from the National Drought Mitigation Center. That means dry topsoils, declining water levels and the potential for lower-than-average crop yields.

Much of the northwest corner of South Dakota, as well as Lincoln and Minnehaha counties, are in severe drought. This translates to an early planting season, short hay, an extended fire season and low stock ponds for cattle.

And while warm, dry conditions started to spread throughout the state in June, a recent bout of rain and snow in some areas this past week could alleviate those stressful conditions for farmers to a degree, according to State Climatologist Laura Edwards, who is based in Aberdeen.

“All of the rain that we’ve been getting — even the snow that’s melted — has gone into the soils,” Edwards said, noting that soil moisture is a major drought indicator.

Rain makes corn

Joe Redder, a Dell Rapids farmer who regularly plants about 200 acres of alfalfa and corn for his small cattle operation, shared the worries that come with drought. Or at least he did until the past week or so when about 2.5 inches of rain and 15 inches of wet snow turned his dry fields to mud.

The 71-year-old expects that moisture to sink into deeper soil and leave the topsoil dry enough to start planting in early May. Some farmers, depending on what they’re planting, could start as early as next week if the weather holds.

“Things should be dry enough that we can get through anything and everything,” Redder said.

Some, however, might not be so lucky.

Sara Bauder, an agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, said that farmers in north and north-central South Dakota didn’t receive the rain that more southern areas of the state did in recent days.

“We could still have drought,” Bauder said. “Some places, there just isn’t much (water) in the subsoil.”

Mitigating dry conditions

While it’s difficult to plan for drought conditions, Bauder said there are a few ways to keep crops growing when there isn’t much moisture.

In the short term, farmers can adjust the depth at which they initially plant their crops. If topsoil is dry, seeds can be planted at a depth where more moisture might be available for germination.

Additionally, farmers might change the maturity levels of their crops. For example, different varieties of corn can take from about 85 to 110 days to reach maturity, according to Bauder. If drought persists and farmers are delayed in planting, choosing a variety that takes fewer days to mature might be a good idea.

In the long term, Bauder says that good soils can mitigate drought effects.

That can include keeping the soil covered with residue from previous crops, using no-till practices, rotating what crops are planted each year, keeping living roots in the soil for as long as possible each year and integrating livestock to the land.

“People really adjust what they’re doing on the fly,” Bauder said. “It’s really hard to plan ahead for a drought, but it’s always good to have that in the back of your mind.”

Joe Redder walks along his farm property on Friday in Dell Rapids.
Much farmland in South Dakota, including in the Aberdeen area, is suffering from drought conditions after a dry winter.
Muddy terrain fills Joe Redder’s corn fields on Friday in Dell Rapids. Redder said he will begin the planting process once the ground dries out more.
Joe Redder walks along his farm property on Friday near Dell Rapids.