Opposite end of the spectrum
Copious amounts of moisture have plagued the surrounding states since early spring, causing farmers to delay or completely forfeit their planting seasons. The flooding has caused loss and heartache, and has been the forefront of the agriculture industry in this area for months.
However, not everyone is dealing with too much water.
Northern North Dakota has been experiencing the exact opposite. While their neighbors balk at the mention of rain in the weather report, these farmers have been praying for it.
The drought stretches from along the northern border, reaching as far down as northern parts of Dunn, Mercer, and Foster counties, among nearly 20. The drought classification ranges between moderate and abnormal.
Nate Brandt farms and ranches 12 miles south of Stanley, in Mountrail County. He grew up helping his dad, grandpa, and uncle, and started actively farming in 2014 as a sophomore in high school. He bought a few black Angus cow-calf pairs and has since grown that operation, in addition to planting wheat, canola, yellow peas, soybeans, and forage crops for his cattle.
“We had a snow storm the last week in April, so that gave us a little moisture to get started, but since then we have only had roughly .75 inches of rain.” He said the last two years have also been abnormally dry, but they got by with subsoil moisture. “This year is a different story, as the subsoil moisture has been used up the last couple of years. Irrigation systems are almost unheard of in this area of the state, so it makes us rely on timely rains that have just not been present this spring.”
North Dakota state climatologist, F. Adnan Akyüz. Ph.D., has been studying climate data since he graduated from University of Missouri Columbia with a doctorate in Atmospheric Science. He’s since held the Missouri State Climatologist position, then the Weather Service in Kansas City, before taking his current position in North Dakota in 2007. He’s also taught as a professor for about 20 years.
He explained about how the evaporation of water from the soil and transpiration from plants, together called evapotranspiration, is a cause of drought.
“It becomes a significant portion of water vapor source for the atmosphere for a location that is far away from oceans such as North Dakota. When the soil and the plants provide plenty of water in the atmosphere, there is plenty precipitation opportunity, therefore the area gets a better chance of staying wet (positive feedback). During droughts, we lack this locally provided moisture resources, so the dryness continues (another positive feedback). Therefore, when it is dry, it tends to stay dry. Similarly, when it is wet, it tends to stay wet. It separates dry periods from wet ones. That is why we have periods of wet and dry weather that may extend multiple years, such as the most recent drought period in 2017- 18. It requires a significant change to shift from one period to another.”
Dr. Akyüz said the 2017-18 drought ended earlier this spring, but the abnormal dryness that the region is experiencing is a result of the scar left over.
“It’s a brand new weather mechanism and pattern, which has a low forecasting capability. It’s too early to say the dryness will continue. It will take a simple wet period to end this short-term dryness. Farmers already know it will be a short growing season. They will also have problems in the end of the season with having the grains dry enough for long-term storage, assuming the crops will mature.” He also said that as these daily and annual fluctuations exist, these changes are occurring on top of a longer period shift in the climate.
“Because of the long-term temperature increase is occurring simultaneously with short-term changes, there is a better chance for higher temperatures and precipitation during the period when the steepest trends occur,” Dr. Akyüz said.
Erika Kenner of Leeds (Benson Co.) knows the fluctuation of wet and dry seasons well. Her family’s operation went through a dry spell in the 1980s and a few decades of a wet spell. The last two years, they’ve been back to low moisture.
“It’s been a strange year. So many states are drowning, and our area is begging for rain. “ Erika’s family owns and operates Kenner Simmental, selling Purebred Simmental, and cross breeds their own SimAngus and Purebred Red Angus along with a large farming operation. Erika has been involved with numerous beef associations, including the American Simmental Association and North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.
“We’re very close to Devil’s Lake, so that caused problems for a lot of people. We were fortunate enough to be far enough away that we didn’t lose our land, but definitely lost areas where sloughs were full and having to deal with the same problems the southern part of the state, and the states south and east of us are dealing with this year. They can’t turn their wheels and everything is just so wet. We went for years like that. We had planted acres and were getting stuck all the time, all of that. It’s their turn to be wet; I think they were dry when we were wet. We’ve been there before so we know how it feels,” Erika said.
Because of the drought in the 80s, Erika and her family have always been looking forward and preparing for not enough moisture once again. They set up fresh water tanks and pumps in most of their pastures, so they didn’t have to rely on sloughs and dugouts. They manage pasture rotation meticulously so they have enough grass to last through the summer, and they overproduced their hay crop when they could.
“We just keep going until the weather doesn’t allow us. For the guys in the northwest corner (of the state), that’s harder to do because they’re in the third year of drought. We’re sitting okay right now, but it’s getting critical because our alfalfa isn’t looking too sharp and our grass has already headed out very short.”
During the wet spell, the Kenners had to till their fields in order to dry out the soil before they were able to seed. Now, they’re back to no till to preserve as much moisture as possible. Erika said they’ve been on the edge of a few storms this spring, but the areas to the north and west of them are even worse off.
Nate and his family were able to finish their planting on time, as with most of the farmers in their area, but he believes it will be tough to find enough forage and hay to feed the cattle over the winter.
“Right now, the hay barley could still turn out to be a great crop if we can get a good rain. The grain crops came up looking beautiful, but now they are starting to burn up quite fast.” He said they’ve been no-till farming for many years, which helps hold in moisture, and they’re looking at getting alternative livestock feeds lined up for the winter. “Other than that, we just hope to get a timely rain before the crops are too far gone.”
For more information about the drought, you can go to https://www.drought.gov/drought/states/north-dakota