One Day Closer to Rain: Drought deepens across much of the United States |

One Day Closer to Rain: Drought deepens across much of the United States

By Molly Jacobson for Tri-State Livestock News

Drought conditions in Iowa continued to worsen this week, bringing more challenges for farmers and ranchers in the nation’s corn belt. Just as the drought is becoming more severe across much of Nebraska, Kansas and northern Montana, so it is in much of Iowa and South Dakota, and the entire nation.

By the end of June, nearly half of Iowa was experiencing abnormally dry conditions. In the four months since, Iowa has continued to dry out, and now 12 of its counties have been pinned with a USDA disaster designation. 

South Dakota is struggling as well. Nearly ¾ of the state is suffering moderate to exceptional drought – the most severe drought designation on the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

But it’s not just dry grass that plagues producers – the drought brings a whole host of problems. From field fires to grasshopper infestations to dried-up water sources, farmers and ranchers are seeing setbacks in all areas. 

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 100% of Iowa is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with over 87.7% in moderate drought or worse, which is more than double from last month’s 41.9%. 38.3% of Iowa is in severe drought, mainly the northwest and southeast areas of the state. An increasingly large area extending east from Sioux City is suffering extreme drought.  

That puts 84% of cattle, 91% of hogs, 82% of the hay crop, 90% of the soybean crop, and 87% of the corn crop in Iowa in an area of moderate to severe drought. Based on last year’s numbers, that’s 3,234,000 cattle; 21,749,000 hogs; 1,033,200 hay acres; and 20,313,000 acres of corn and soybeans.  

Over 73,000 Iowa farms and ranches are situated in areas experiencing moderate to severe drought or worse. One of those producers is Brian Weaver. Weaver’s family homesteaded 30 miles east of Sioux City, Iowa in 1867 and they’ve been farming and ranching ever since.  

“My brother and I – we’re very well-established,” says Weaver, but they’ve been affected by the drought nonetheless. “It’s our third year dry…a lot of pasture around here is looking kinda like an exercise lot.”  

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, only 26 percent of pasture conditions are rated good to excellent, meaning most Iowa ranchers are dealing with a sub-par grazing situation.  

Like it is for most producers, everything’s coming in short for Weaver. “Mainly our corn was probably cut back at least 25 percent…the corn silage…basically the crop was at least 50 bushels or so short. And beans…right here in this area are easily 10-15 bushels short…Alfalfa and the grass at least 30 percen short,” says Weaver.  

Over 87% of Iowa’s corn crop is in an area of moderate to severe drought. Gentry Sorenson | courtesy photo

“Everything matured at least two weeks early, and little to no propane use for drying the crops,” says Weaver. “When there’s not as much, the harvest goes quicker.” 

Diminished yields aren’t the only downside to the dryness, though.  

“The local fire department’s basically always on patrol,” says Weaver. “These machines are starting fires in the cornfields, and my gosh, they can burn fast.” 

Weaver has been wary of these kinds of conditions for a long time, so he’s run things pretty conservatively. A bit of time in Montana during his youth really stuck with Weaver, and as a result, he’s always operated a little more western.  

“I always learned when I was out there, they’d have three years of hay. When things were good, they were making hay like mad.”  

As far as his pasture goes, “We treat it very conservatively. We’ve been no-till for we forgot how long…just forever,” says Weaver. “And boy, the minute I can get those cows off the grass – there’s cornstalks available – I want those cows off.” 

“We’ve been doing a rotational grazing deal since, well, before it was even a thing, and I’m very conservative with my numbers,” Weaver says. 

“I’ve always under-grazed…people tease me – ‘Oh, you’re leaving all this grass!’ – but anything I can leave out there, it’s going to catch rain, and the cows are going to eat it next year.” 

His feed situation isn’t as dire as some, but Weaver says he’s seeing “more and more major water problems in these rural areas. Creeks, springs that you usually count on to water cattle – they’re dry.” 

“We’ve been here since 1867… and we have a 40-foot well that has never gone dry…it’s struggling.”  

Looking forward, Weaver is concerned about the lack of soil moisture.  

“We’ve never experienced going into the winter this dry. Hybrids and these crops are so good nowadays, but they’ve gotta have rain.” “It is just desperately dry in this area…things need a lot of moisture to recover.” 

In some areas, up to 84 percent of topsoil and 87 percent of subsoil was determined to be short or very short of moisture, according to the NASS.  

“Farmers can always complain about something, but boy, it is just bone dry for Iowa,” says Weaver. 

In Belvidere, South Dakota, Rancher Kenny Fox says, “It’s not the first time we’ve had this happen, but this is probably the second-driest I think I’ve ever seen it in the 34 years we’ve lived here.”  

“Right now, we’re feeding all of our cows hay, due to drought and grasshoppers,” says Fox. “In my life I’ve never had to start feeding hay this early.” 

South Dakota rancher Kenny Fox usually gets 800 round bales at 1400-pounds apiece on this field. Due to drought and grasshoppers, Fox got minimal hay last year and no hay at all this year. Kenny Fox | courtesy photo
Most of South Dakota Rancher Kenny Fox’s dams are dry. Fortunately, Fox still has some spring-fed sources as well as some pipeline. Even so, Fox has had to thin his herd. Kenny Fox | Courtesy photo

“We sold our calves early, and we’ve sold a lot of our cows over the last two years. This is our second year of drought. We didn’t get any hay this year, and we got very little last year. So we’ve been thinning the herd.”  

Like it is in Iowa, Fox says, “Our water situation is critical. Most of our dams are dry,” says Fox. 

“It’s just part of this business, these droughts happen every now and then, so we try to prepare for them.” Even so, Fox says, “We didn’t expect it to be quite this dry.” 

“What we’ve done in the past – we have some wells here, so we’ve put in pipeline. That’s been a blessing, that we can still get water to the livestock,” says Fox. “When we’ve had extra money, we do a mile or two of pipeline to try to prepare for these droughts that come through.” 

Despite the fact that droughts have mostly natural and unpredictable causes, there are some things producers can do to better insulate themselves from disaster, including adopting more sustainable farming practices, working to increase soil health, and adopting better water management techniques. 

In particular, agronomists suggest carefully monitoring pasture regrowth as well as avoiding tillage to conserve soil moisture and doing what you can to prepare for continued dry conditions.  

While producers like Fox and Weaver are often the first in the community to experience the devastation of a drought, it’s not long before the ripples affect the nation as a whole. According to, The U.S. has suffered 26 droughts since 1980, each one with an average cost of $9.6 billion. That’s an astonishing total of at least $249 billion incurred by drought over the last 50 years. The only climate disaster that’s more expensive is a hurricane. 

“Drought doesn’t have a clear beginning and end like tornadoes or hurricanes or floods. It starts and ends slowly and often we don’t see the effects of drought for weeks, months, or even years. This is why we often say that drought is a creeping natural hazard,” states the National Drought Mitigation Center.  

Like all other droughts, there’s no doubt this one will have serious short- and long-term impacts. Most producers will be taking a big hit this year.  

Weaver says, “When it’s this dry, it’s just another 30% off your top line.”  

In South Dakota, Fox expects, “We’ll have to maybe sell some more cows or buy a lot more feed.” Despite that, he remains hopeful.  

“Pray for rain,” says Fox. “It’ll rain someday, it always does. We’re one day closer than we were.”