BISMARCK - The community of Redstone, Mont., in 2016 asked to join the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network. They wanted to use the weather organization's resources on fusarium head blight, explained Daryl Ritchison, the interim director of NDAWN.
Ritchison told the crowd at the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line conference on Feb. 27 at Bismarck State College that he had a feeling then Redstone wouldn't be using the NDAWN information just for the wheat fungus research. Already Ritchison had a feeling 2017 would be dry.
He, of course, was right - 2017 was dry. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana struggled through drought conditions from an exceptionally dry early spring, which hurt cool-season grasses and small grains, to a dry summer that ended with much-needed rains in August and September in many places.
But Redstone? It received only 8 percent of normal precipitation in 2017.
During the summer, parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana dipped into exceptional drought status on the U.S. Drought Monitor - the worst category. Even though precipitation heading into the fall helped conditions some, all three states still have some areas considered in severe drought, including Sheridan County, home of Redstone.
Cal Thorson, technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service's Northern Grain Plains Research Lab south of Mandan, served, along with students from the Bismarck State College Ag Club, as moderator for the Farming and Ranching for the Bottom Line event. The committee planning the event for the past six months wanted to focus on a topic that certainly affected farmers and ranchers in 2017: drought, Thorson said.
Almost every item on the schedule had some tie-in to the dry year in 2017 and how producers could plan for 2018 in light of soil going into the growing season with an expected moisture deficit.
Speakers on an ag lender panel, featuring Craig Malm of Farm Credit Services in Mandan, Jeff Blees of Dakota Community Bank & Trust of Mandan, and Kyle Olson of Bismarck State College, said the drought's impact on balance sheets was somewhat surprisingly muted. Late-summer rains that pushed row crops along helped, as did crop insurance and the ability to sell or use baled small grains for livestock feed. Rising cattle prices also improved the outcome.
"At this point, I would say it wasn't as bad as it looked like it was going to be in midsummer," Malm said.
Things are tight, the panel said, but most people are making payments.
Ritchison had more good news for the attendees at the conference in Bismarck. Looking at the same statistical and historical models he used to forecast 2017 as a dry year, he sees 2018 being about average.
"We have never had two 2017s in a row," he said.
The crowd, made up largely of central and western North Dakota producers and agronomists, cheered. But Ritchison made sure to temper their enthusiasm for the forecast, reminding them of the region's vast variability. An average year, he reminded them, isn't a cure-all. Timely rains, particularly in the early spring, matter more than the total.
And even average precipitation is not going to wash away last year's problems.
"Think normal," Ritchison said. "Normal is dry. And we have to recoup from last year."
Strategies for grazing
No matter what kind of year 2018 shapes up to be, livestock producers need to be cognizant of the stress put on pastures in 2017, advised Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension range specialist and director of Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in Streeter.
Sedivec said he wouldn't say that overgrazing in a one-year period is "terrible."
"Our pastures in the Northern Plains can take a one-year hit," he said.
However, Sedivec said grazing into December, January and February "absolutely" can hurt grasses and lead to more stress on pastures.
Sedivec had four main tips for producers looking to maintain the quality of their pastures given last year's dry conditions and the likelihood that even an average year won't be enough to catch up: delay turnout, don't overgraze, implement a grazing strategy and add high-quality water sources.
• Turning out too early on an already-stressed pasture has the greatest negative impact on pasture, he said. Producers may be running out of feed, but that's no reason to rush to get the cows out. If hay is running short, Sedivec said crested wheatgrass or brome grass fields, which are ready earlier and can take grazing heavier than native grass, are good places to start cows. Some areas, including between Bismarck and Jamestown and to the north in North Dakota, have Kentucky bluegrass that can be another good option.
• Overgrazing stressed grasses also creates problems. Sedivec said it's important to leave at least two leaves on the bottom of a plant and about four inches of stubble.
• The good thing about a drought, Sedivec said, is it gets people thinking about grazing management. Cell grazing, in which pastures are divided into sub-pastures and livestock are moved through at a higher stock density, can get animals to eat things, like buckbrush, Canada thistle and wormwood, that they normally wouldn't. It also makes sure that pastures get used more uniformly and allows grasses to recover.
• High-quality water is of the utmost importance. Sedivec shared research showing that access to clean water can significantly increase gain; on a 100-head pen of calves, the difference on today's market could mean $10,000, he said. Pumping water out of a dugout into a trough, among other strategies, can pay for itself. "I can buy a really nice system for $10,000," he said. "Water is one of your best investments."
Though the grasses of the Plains are resilient, Sedivec said it's important not to push them too far.
"Try not to get back-to-back years of overgrazing," he said.
Strategies for crops
It wasn't just drought that affected crops at the Area 4 Research Farm, said Mark Liebig, research soil scientist at the Northern Grain Plains Research Lab. Hail and wind played a part in poor crop production.
But what the researchers saw across the board was that areas that used no-till techniques, rather than minimum till, did better. The differences aren't all that pronounced most years, but the drought revealed the role tillage can play in maintaining soil moisture.
"Last year was one of those years where our tillage treatment contrast really stood out," he said.
Looking forward, Liebig reminded conference attendees that the region went into winter "really dry." He stressed the importance of maintaining a mulch layer if at all possible. Don't get out the chisel plow or the disc, he advised.
As planting season nears, Liebig advised farmers to consider putting in some crops with lower relative soil water depletion. Sunflowers and corn are heavy water users, while soybeans are considered moderate-to-heavy. Pulse crops, flax, canola and other moderate-to-low options may be a good thing to mix in, he said.
"If you put all your eggs in a high-risk basket, then you're really rolling the dice," Liebig said.
The forecast Ritchison presented "gives you hope," Liebig said, while noting that warnings about the variability of storms were important.
"Some areas of the state can do really well, while others miss out on those storms," Liebig said.
Ritchison's forecast also called for a likely slow start to spring; cool temperatures and deep frost from a relatively shallow snow cover could delay planting. Liebig said it will be important to adjust plans with soil temperatures and moisture levels.
"It's Great Plains farming," he said. "It's inherently dynamic, and you've got to adapt to the conditions that are sent to you - and not necessarily to a fixed date on the calendar."