High Plains drought worst many have seen

Long­time farmers try­ing to ‘make it through’ sum­mer with no rain­fall

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SCIENCE | ENVIRONMENT - By Blake Ni­chol­son

BEULAH, N.D. — Drought in North Dakota is lay­ing waste to fields of nor­mally boun­ti­ful food and hay crops and sear­ing pas­turesthat typ­i­cally would be home to mul­ti­tudes of grazing cat­tle.

Some long­time farmers and ranch­ers say it’s the worst con­di­tions they’ve seen in decades — pos­si­bly their life­times — and sim­ple sur­vival has be­come their goal as a dry sum­mer drags on with­out a rain­cloud in sight.

“We’ve never been in this sort of boat, hon­estly,” said Dawn Martin, who raises beef cat­tle with her par­ents and hus­band in the south­west­ern part of the state, an area the U.S. Drought Mon­i­tor says is in “ex­treme” drought.

“We’re just try­ing to make it through and work it out,” she said. “There are a lot of peo­ple in the same boat. I don’t know what the an­swer is.”

Con­sumer im­pact

The drought’s im­pact likely will be felt not just by farmers but also con­sumers, state Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Doug Goehring said. Agri­cul­ture in North Dakota is an $11 bil­lion a year in­dus­try, and the state leads the na­tion in the pro­duc­tion of nearly a dozen crops.

“It’s go­ing to af­fect bread at the gro­cery store counter,” Goehring said. “Dry beans — navies, pin­tos — are go­ing to be af­fected to a de­gree. Can ola, that pro­duc­tion is go­ing to be cut, and that’s go­ing to have an ef­fect on vegetable oil.”

The lat­est Drought Mon­i­tor map shows nearly all of western North Dakota in se­vere or ex­treme drought, con­di­tions that ex­tend into north­ern South Dakota and north­east­ern Mon­tana. Most of there st of North Dakota is in mod­er­ate drought or ab­nor­mally dry.

John Weinand has had less than 2.5 inches of rain on his farm near Beulah, which is north­west of Bis­marck, since the be­gin­ning of May. He’s used to get­ting more than 3 inches in June alone.

Weinand fig­ures his wheat crop will be half what it usu­ally is. As for his field peas, he ex­pects to har­vest fewer than 100 pounds per acre, com­pared with a typ­i­cal 3,000 pounds per acre. He won’t even try to sell his bar­ley; he’s al­ready rolled it up into hay to feed his cows.

“If we get some rain we’ll have some corn and soy­beans, but at this point it doesn’t look very promis­ing,” he said.

The Martins have sold off about one-third of their cat­tle be­cause the grass in their pas­tures is brown and brit­tle and they’ve al­ready started dip­ping into win­ter hay re­serves. They’ll likely send their re­main­ing an­i­mals to a feed­lot for the win­ter, but they might need to find sec­ond jobs to cover the ex­pense.

“What we’re try­ing to do is hold onto our main cow herd, get through the year, and hope­fully next year is bet­ter,” Martin said.

The sit­u­a­tion is much the same across ranch­ing coun­try, with the best hay pro­duc­tion about a fourth of nor­mal.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture has des­ig­nated nu­mer­ous coun­ties in the three states as nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, paving the way for emer­gency loans for pro­duc­ers. Agri­cul­ture of­fi­cials have au­tho­rized other aid, in­clud­ing for­age dis­as­ter pay­ments and emer­gency hay­ing and grazing of land en­rolled in con­ser­va­tion and wet­land pro­grams.

‘A re­silient bunch’

That helps, but doesn’t cover ev­ery­thing, Goehring said. Nei­ther does crop in­sur­ance, which pays only a por­tion of what a farmer would get by sell­ing a typ­i­cal crop, said Goehring, who in ad­di­tion to head­ing the state Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment is a farmer who has worked in the in­sur­ance in­dus­try.

The state has taken sev­eral steps, in­clud­ing adding more money to its Drought Dis­as­ter Live­stock Wa­ter Sup­ply cost-share pro­gram and re­lax­ing com­mer­cial driv­ing re­stric­tions to help with the trans­port of live­stock, wa­ter and hay.

If the drought per­sists into next year, it could start push­ing pro­duc­ers out of busi­ness, of­fi­cials and farmers say. But one year of ex­treme con­di­tions, though a hard­ship, will be man­age­able for most.

“We’ll make it through,” Martin said. “We’re a re­silient bunch.”

Blake Ni­chol­son / Associated Press

Farmer John Weinand sur­veys a wheat field near Beulah, N.D., that should be twice as tall as it is.

Tom Stromme / Bis­marck Tribune via AP

Farmers and ranch­ers in drought­stricken ar­eas of North Dakota met on Wed­nes­day with state lead­ers, who have taken steps to help them through the hard times.

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