Too much of a good thing: Ranchers, farmers deal with multitude of water-related problems
The year 2019 will be one for the record books. A Polar Vortex in January brought record low temperatures in North and South Dakota. Britton, S.D., for example, had the coldest temperature on record at -40°F. These cold temperatures persisted through much of the winter.
Then through February, March and April, the region was impacted by severe blizzards, most notably the “Bomb Cyclone” and “Winter Storm Ulmer,” which blanketed the Great Plains with heavy, wet snow, ice, sleet and rain.
Of course, these extreme blizzards coincided with calving season for many, and just when folks started to think winter might never end, the snow melted in rapid fashion and quickly flooded the region.
From Yankton, S.D. to Norfolk, Neb., heavy rains, melting snow pack and warm temperatures resulted in washed out roads, evacuated towns, drowned livestock, buckled bridges and destroyed rural communities.
The persistent rains leading into the spring planting season delayed or eliminated the opportunity for producers to work fields, with many opting to prevent plant. The year brought a stronger push for planting cover crops, yet unrelenting rain ruled that option out for many, as well.
According to the USDA, the number of unplanted acres nationwide in 2019 is more than 19 million acres. South Dakota leads the nation in unplanted fields, with 3.8 million acres without a crop for the 2019 harvest season. This number includes 2.8 million unplanted corn acres and nearly 851,000 acres of soybeans.
“The 2019 growing season continues to present challenges for South Dakota farmers,” said Laura Edwards, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension state climatologist. “Plan for the worst, and hope for the best, is one of the messages this season.”
It’s not just crop farmers who have been impacted by the wet spring and summer. Livestock producers have had to contend with a challenging haying season, flooded pastures and worries about how to stockpile enough forages for the upcoming winter months.
“While I don’t want to jinx the moisture that we have been sent this year, it has caused a few issues ,” said Naomi Loomis, a rancher from Alliance, Neb. “Although the quantity of the grass has been excellent, the quality of the grass is not as good as we would like. In fact, a lot of our meadow ground seems to have rain rot, meaning the grass was way too wet to really grow, causing the bottom to be brown. The cattle don’t really like it. As a feed salesman at Double A Feeds and through our cow herd, cattle seem to be really going through mineral and protein, which tells me that even though the grass is belly deep, it doesn’t have the punch for the cattle.”
‘We are seeing lots of foot rot issues in our cattle out on pasture,” said Rachel Embree, a rancher from Long Valley, S.D. “Crops look okay, but there are still lots of flooded areas and wet spots that didn’t come up.”
Zane Williams, a feedlot producer and hay grower from Irene, S.D., said, “Oh, where do I start? Feedlots have been a disaster. Gains are down. Winter kill in alfalfa hit us hard. It’s just been a tough year all around.”
‘We still have most of the wheat in the fields; we can’t get to some, and the rest is too wet or too damaged to harvest,” said Jessie Liebenstein Christensen, a rancher from Chamberlain, S.D. “We delayed pre-weaning processing because facilities are either too wet, or we can’t get the cattle hauled out. Some calves never got spring processing either due to wet conditions. The weather this year already has some farmers in our area talking about prevent plant for next year.”
At DakotaFest, held on Aug. 20-22 in Mitchell, S.D., the annual event attracted a large crowd of farmers and ranchers. Driving into the field designated as a parking lot, the ground was soft with deep tire tracks found throughout in the wet, low spots.
A large audience gathered to listen to Edwards’ speech on the fall 2019 weather outlook. Worried about more rain or an early frost, many producers were eager to hear good news from the SDSU’s state climatologist.
‘Wet climate conditions in the next three months would be consistent with our state’s long-term trend, which has been an increase in fall precipitation over the last several decades,” she said. “For many soybean and corn growers, wet conditions in the late summer and fall have become more of the norm than the exception in recent years, including in 2018.”
Speaking about whether the fall will bring an El Niño or La Niña conditions, Edwards hedged, saying, “September and October do not appear to lean strongly either cooler or warmer than average. Overall through October, there are equal chances of warmer, cooler or near average temperatures for South Dakota.”
She added, “Cooler conditions could slow down corn growth again as accumulated growing degree days may level off. Wet conditions will not benefit small grain harvest either in the month ahead. Too much fall moisture could set the stage for more spring flooding in 2020, as our soils are already saturated, or at least very wet, already.”
Edwards told the audience she doesn’t anticipate an early frost, although wet conditions will continue to be a challenge for producers trying to put up hay or harvest crops in the weeks and months ahead.
“From September through November, we may be seeing a pattern change toward warming, so that is a little light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “If we can get through a cool period in early September, I think we’ll see an average or later frost, but with more moisture and humidity. The tough news is that we are predicting a wetter than average fall in the southeastern part of South Dakota, so that will be another challenge.”