Close doesn’t count: How to make drought reporting more accurate |

Close doesn’t count: How to make drought reporting more accurate

After a widespread drought in 2017, producers are anxious over moisture amounts this spring. Regular reporting can help keep drought records more accurate. Photo by Heather Hamilton-Maude

As the grazing season draws near, producers may be looking for ways to stretch their hay supply until turnout time. Due to last year’s drought, pastures may have been overgrazed and slower to get established, and for many, finding ways to stretch available forage will be a huge factor in determining whether to keep or cull some pairs before the summer grazing season.

Drought is one of those uncontrollable factors that seems to plague ranchers in western South Dakota and the surrounding states year after year, and some producers believe there is some inaccuracy in drought reporting and data collection that interferes with their eligibility for federal drought assistance.

“It seems like it’s usually drier than what is reported,” said Cody Lafferty, a rancher from Reliance, S.D. “Last year was the worst I’ve ever seen, and it took forever for my area to be categorized with D4 conditions.”

In Custer County, beef producer Lori Maude said while the data may be accurate for parts of the county, it doesn’t reflect what her ranch was experiencing during the 2017 drought.

“It seems like it’s usually drier than what is reported. Last year was the worst I’ve ever seen, and it took forever for my area to be categorized with D4 conditions.”Cody Lafferty, Reliance, S.D., rancher

“We have no weather stations in our end of Custer County,” Maude said. “The monitor used for USDA and FSA programs is located in Custer, S.D.; that’s 70+ miles away from us and at a higher elevation — a totally different environment than where we are at. We hauled water all summer but didn’t qualify for any programs because Custer County wasn’t in a drought according to the weather data collected at the station 70 miles away.”

Near White River, S.D., rancher Joyce Glynn said she consistently submitted reports of her own to more accurately reflect the drought status in her area in the data reports.

“Last summer’s drought monitor was kind of, sort of accurate for a while,” she said. “It took weeks of me reporting impact statements on the conditions, along with emails and phone calls, to finally convince someone to drive here and actually see what we were dealing with. Then it was changed to reflect what was happening in our area. We literally had a night and day difference from one end of our county to the other. We live in the far western end of our county, and when we drove to the far east and listened to people there complain, we were appalled. We would have given anything to have the moisture they had.”

Glynn learned she could improve the data by participating in the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network program.

“I realized, to have accurate data, it takes dedicated volunteers, so I signed up and continue to report daily,” said Glynn. “I think the drought data could be more accurate if more people took the few minutes per day to report moisture. The more reports, the more accurate it will be. My philosophy has become, if you don’t want to be part of the solution, then don’t complain.”

“It’s really easy to become a volunteer with CoCoRaHS,” said Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University Extension state climatologist. “This volunteer weather watcher group uses a simple rain gauge that costs $30 to report rainfall or even zero moisture each morning. This is a great tool that’s easy to participate in because you can report from your smart phone or computer in seconds. This information gets fast-tracked to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where they have a national data base for drought impact reports. These reports are important because they can sway one way or another whether a county is classified from a D1 to a D2.”

To learn more about CoCoRaHS, producers can sign up at To monitor UNL’s drought reports, visit

Edwards said she understands producer frustrations about drought reporting; however, she points out that there is some confusion between the various monitoring services and how they collect data.

“There may be some confusion out there between the U.S. Drought Monitor and the Pasture Range Forage Rainfall Index Insurance,” she said. “Many producers purchase PRF insurance, and that program uses national data sets, and very limited local data, to service their inputs on the precipitation map. However, the U.S. Drought Monitor is quite a bit different. It draws from multiple data sets that look at 40-50 indicators such as different climates, temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, river levels, snow pack, vegetation, remote sensing and satellite data.”

And while many federal aid programs rely on the information released from the U.S. Drought Monitor, Edwards said it was never intended to form the basis for drought disaster relief programs with the USDA.

“That wasn’t the original intention of the U.S. Drought Monitor, but it was an already well-established tool available, and in a lot of ways, it made sense to formulate a disaster relief program based on a program already in existence,” she said. “The benefit of the U.S. Drought Monitor is it can use very localized information; however, the downside is the local impact reports can be incredibly variable in some of these larger western counties, especially when you have to take elevation into account.”

Edwards encourages producers to sign up with CoCoRaHS where they can not only submit moisture readings but also pictures and anecdotal information.

Each week, Edwards, along with a group of local experts, discusses current conditions and makes recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor authors. She says this is a great opportunity to accurately reflect what land owners are dealing with, but it’s also a huge challenge, as well.

“South Dakota isn’t very densely populated, so we have fewer reports that make it more difficult to include every scenario or inconsistency from what other producers may be dealing with,” she said. “However, when we start seeing cattle sales and more concerns about pasture and forage availability so early in the season like we did last year, that was an indicator that came ahead of the climate data about a growing drought problem in our area. For this reason, it’s so important for producers to report in and let us know what’s going on out there.”

SDSU’s Mesonet is a network of automated weather stations that provides high definition weather coverage: areas of just a few hundred square miles and time intervals of several times per hour. This can be contrasted with the typical coverage that is thousands of square miles and hourly. Mesonets excel in providing high precision data particularly with highly variable elements like wind and precipitation.

While the Mesonet is highly accurate, it’s only as good as the number of stations available. These stations are currently funded by sponsors, which limits the scope of coverage.

“We currently have 25-30 Mesonet stations across the state,” Edwards said. “There are currently more on the eastern side of the state, and we are always looking for more station points. We have no state support for the network, and they are often funded by cities, counties, individual producers, conservation districts, water districts and SDSU on our various ag experiment station locations.”

“One of the best ways to help the drought monitor authors is for businesses and/or individuals to sponsor weather stations in their areas or participate in CoCoRas,” added Heather Gessner, SDSU livestock business management specialist. “Remember, good data in makes good information out.”

To learn more about the Mesonet stations or to sponsor one locally, check out

Despite the many resources available for reporting and qualifying producers for drought aid, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and producers certainly have grounds for complaint. These concerns have been heard in Washington, D.C. with Sen. John Thune pushing for reform.

In 2017, Thune introduced the Weather Research and Forecasting Information Act (S. 570), which aimed to improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather research through a focused program of investments on affordable and attainable advances in observational, computing and modeling capabilities to support and improve weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events.

Currently, Thune is pushing for additional reform with the National Integrated Drought Information System Reauthorization Act of 2018 (S. 2200). NIDIS, a program of the NOAA provides drought information to producers affected by severe weather conditions. The legislation would encourage partnerships with the private sector, integrate seasonal and sub seasonal drought and water forecasts and support ongoing soil moisture monitoring to better aid farmers, according to Thune’s website.

“As South Dakota farmers and ranchers recover from devastating drought conditions, it’s important that Congress stays on the ball when it comes to updating critical drought tools like NIDIS,” Thune said. “This updated legislation improves current law while complementing the subseasonal provisions of my weather bill that was enacted earlier this year, keeping South Dakotans better informed and prepared to handle potential droughts.”

“Ultimately, I hope producers continue to support federal reporting systems like the U.S. Drought Monitor,” Edwards said. “The NOAA data dates back to the 1880s, and having such a long-standing data set of information to review from is incredibly helpful in giving us a solid baseline to notice long-term and short-term weather trends.”

With warmer temperatures greening up pastures across the state, Edwards said she is seeing some gradual improvements in western and central South Dakota, where drought hit the hardest in 2017.

“We essentially moved up an entire drought category last week across western South Dakota, thanks to April moisture and snow fall,” Edwards said. “We are optimistic for a better year, but we know there are still residual issues from overgrazing and rundown pastures due to the last two years of drought. Cooler than normal temperatures have kind of tempered or slowed down some improvements, but stock ponds are filling up and creeks are flowing. I think we are in a lot better shape this year than last.” F

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