Extended drought in North Dakota could threaten farmers this season

With 80% of the state in severe drought conditions and 16.9% of the state in extreme drought conditions, farmers in North Dakota are worried about their livelihoods.

By Dylan Sherman, NDNAEF

BISMARCK — Lower snowfall and rain this year has brought about drought conditions in North Dakota, which could be an issue for farmers in the spring.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said there are varying degrees of drought throughout the state.

“Central-west toward the northern part of the state is probably the most severe,” he said. 

According to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor Index, 84.5% of North Dakota is dealing with a severe drought, up from 80.1% a week ago. Severe drought includes poor crop conditions, low soil moisture and low hay yields.

Extreme drought covers 27.5% of the state, according to the index, up from 16.9%. That level of drought can cause crops to stop growing and pastures to go dormant, and it can mean a high chance of wildfires.

Maps by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show drought is an issue for many western states.

Goehring said it isn’t completely unusual for there to be less precipitation during this time of year and when the state is still during the dormant season. “Rain can heal a lot of things,” he said. “It is amazing what could happen in April when you start getting rain during the growing season.”

Goehring said livestock are most at risk during a drought as they need water and there is no supplement for it.

“It is an animal humane issue,” he said. “You have to get water and feed to them, and water is the most crucial.”

There are 11,000 to 13,000 livestock producers in North Dakota, according to Goehring, but he said it is not uncommon for most farmers to have some animals.

In order for some farmers to get access to water they might have to drill a new well, which could cost as much as $140,000, or pay to have water hauled in.

If drought conditions persist, Goehring said his department would seek assistance from federal programs. “What we do at this point is we start to engage USDA and FSA about conditions and issues,” he said. “Our engagement is to address the possibility of having access to (the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program).”

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and a farmer by trade, said the risk of drought comes with the territory of farming.

“It is always a gamble,” he said. “You pray for rain and see that crop grow, and if it doesn’t rain you sit back and pray for the day it will.”

Johnson said the drought is affecting everyone, and he has heard from farmers who are concerned about getting a crop out of the ground. “It has been dry for the last three or four years, but we’ve caught a few showers to pull a crop off,” he said. “But we have not had extra subsoil moisture to get a crop going.”

Johnson said he is seeing commodity prices rise this winter, but farmers are reluctant to forward sell as there is no guarantee they will be able to grow enough crop to fill the sales.

“You’d like to sell enough to cover your operating expenses, but you also have to make sure you have the bushels,” he said. 

Johnson said he hasn’t seen a real crop failure in his lifetime.

“Even on dry years we’ve gotten enough showers to pull a crop off,” he said.

There are protections farmers in which can invest, like crop insurance, to help cover the losses, but Johnson said it is never the same as getting a crop.

Devan Leo, McKenzie County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent, said it has been very different for the county compared to how wet it was in 2019.

“McKenzie County is the driest it has been ever,” she said. 

According to the drought map, a majority of McKenzie County is in the extreme drought category.

Leo said there are concerns about getting crops into the ground, and even more about getting them to germinate. There isn’t enough moisture in the ground now to sustain a seedling, she said.

“We need about 17 inches of total (precipitation) to make up for our deficits,” she said. “That is an awful lot to accumulate in a short period of time because we need it by mid-April.”

Leo added that while low water in wells and ponds will affect livestock, ranchers and farmers are being told to test the water for toxins that can be found in the water during a drought.

“Evaporation of water causes salts to hang around, and those salts can accumulate in toxic numbers and kill livestock off,” she said. 

Rep. Keith Kempenich, R-Bowman, a rancher and crop adjuster, said this drought is shaping out to be one of the worst in his lifetime.

“This is concerning,” he said. “I got two dugouts right now that you can see the bottom of.”

Kempenich said some timely rains can change this, but as it starts to warm up it is still concerning.

“No creeks in our area are running,” he said. “If you don’t have water lines out in your pastures you are going to be struggling this year.”

Kempenich said the water issues and hard ground he has seen show markers that it will be a tough farming year.

“Timing is everything in the (agriculture) business,” he said. “You get a few timely rains and it might be a normal year.”