Small rains save Eden Farms from drought — 'for the day'

Bryan Eden says Eden Farms of Alpena, S.D., has been taking counter-moves to make sure his cattle herd in east-central South Dakota has sufficient feed in the drought of 2021.

Farmers in South Dakota are accustomed to the whipsaws of drought and flood. Bryan Eden of Eden Farms at Alpena, S.D., harvested some bearded barley cover crop in late May 2021, to help feed the herd if they must come off of drought-reduced pastures in September. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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ALPENA, S.D. — Eden Farms typically produces up to 50% more hay than they need for their herd, and sell the rest. This year, they’ll probably keep most of it because of drought , even though the price doubled. This year’s first cutting alfalfa was about one-third of normal, says Bryan Eden, who farms with his family near Alpena, S.D.

Bryan Eden, 42, anticipates bringing in the cattle a little earlier — possibly early September — if the pastures don’t last.

A honeybee gathers pollen from an alfalfa blossom on June 30, 2021, in a field just south of Huron, S.D. Eden Farms, about eight miles to the south. Drought reduced the first-cutting yield to one-third of normal, said farmer Bryan Eden. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“If we rotate things, I think we have enough grass to get us that far,” he said.

Stock water is another issue to contend with. Many of their pastures in this area have dugouts. This one has a dugout and a “crick” (creek) but this stopped flowing a month ago.


“I’m trying to use up the pastures that have that kind of water first, and leave the pastures with a well or rural water later," he said.

Eden Farms top-dressed nitrogen on corn in early June to capitalize on predicted rains that didn’t come. The result was some “burning” of leaf edges for corn that was waiting for rain at the end of the month. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

It’s been hard to outguess this crop. In early June the corn had looked good and there was rain in the forecast. Eden Farms top-dressed the crop with a urea and ammonium sulfate blend, treated with a “stabilizer” to prevent it from being volatilized.

“The rain didn’t amount to anything, and haven’t had any rain since. It didn’t do us any favors; it might have burnt the leaves a little bit because a top-dress of nitrogen usually requires rain, too, Bryan said.

The Edens got .60 inch on July 6. The rain would “get us to the next one,” he said, describing it as a “crop sustainer,” and not a “crop finisher.”

Managing “through” droughts is not new to the Edens. In normal years they produce more hay than their own herd consumes and sell the excess. He doesn’t expect to sell as much this year.

Bearded barley on this field was cut for hay in late May 2021, anticipating a follow-crop of soybeans that was never planted because of dry topsoil. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

On one “low” field near the headquarters they planted a cover crop — beardless barley — because it would “come” up in the saline salt deposit that had expanded there in the wet years. They hayed in late May, when it was just starting to head. With no moisture, he left it unplanted until July 8, when he planted a forage sorghum, after the rain.


Fourth generation

Bryan Eden and his wife, Mindy, farm and have seven children, ages 1 to 18, at Eden Farms near Alpena, S.D. The Edens farm with his parents, Randy and Sandy Eden. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Bryan Eden, 42, is the fourth generation on Eden Farms. He earned his ag business degree from Lake Area Technical College at Watertown, S.D., and then came home to farm with his parents, Randy and Sandy. He and his wife, Mindy, have seven children — four boys and three girls, ages 1 to 18. Mindy keeps the farm books.

Eden Farms includes about 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Corn in this area often yields 150 bushels per acre, and sometimes 200 bushels. Bryan typically cuts a quarter or two for silage.

“If it’s not going to make decent grain, we’ll just keep chopping,” he said.

Typically, he would start cutting corn for silage at the end of August: “That’s all weather dependent, it could be earlier this year.”

Soybeans were starting to bloom in late June 2021, at Eden Farms of Alpena, S.D. The crop can hang in there in a drought but will need rain in coming weeks or yields will suffer.Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The soybeans were starting to flower on June 29, 2021. They looked all right, he said.


“They’re tough and they don’t need a lot of water — yet.”

The family has 500 pairs of commercial Angus cow-calf pairs, plus about 100 yearling heifers kept back for herd replacements.

A herd including 500 cow-calf pairs and 100 replacement heifers at Eden Farms near Alpena, S.D., is likely to stay on the place, despite a drought. The family typically sells hay, but likely will keep what they produced, despite drought-elevated prices. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Edens start calving in March and wean in September to October. They background-feed calves and market them tin March and April, just prior to the next calving. He has some fall-calving cows.

They sell most steers at about 1,000 pounds. They typically sell replacement heifers and keep some for their own herd. The Edens rely on Magness Livestock Market of Huron, S.D., and Kimball (S.D.) Livestock Exchange.

“I’m planning on weaning early,” Bryan said. ”I’m probably going to be feeding early. It’s going to take more feed that way.”

Back to 2017

Asked about the severity of this year’s drought, Bryan feels compelled to go back to 2017 crop year, which was very dry, with a short hay crop. The Edens carried over hay stocks and chopped a lot of silage.

In 2018, a terrible blizzard came during calving but set up good row crops. In 2019, the moisture kept coming and the Edens were flooded out. They planted one-third of their acres.

In 2020, the water receded. “We still had a lot of prevent-plant (insurance claims) but had a good crop — good amounts of hay where it wasn’t drowned," he said.

Bryan Eden of Alpena, S.D., shows where bearded barley was cut for hay feed for his beef cattle in late May 2021, but where a planned follow crop was never planted because of drought. Behind him is a wet spot in the field that has not been planted since 2017. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

They stored the hay. In 2021, the water receded some more.

“We’re getting down in some areas we hadn’t seen since 2017,” Bryan said, of the planting situation. “But the crop is suffering and we are super dry now.”

The farm received a third of normal snowfall. Even with the July 6 rain, they’ve only had about 4 inches of precipitation. This year’s planting went fast. Eden Farms had a one-inch soaking rain about one month earlier. The rain after that was in .10- and .20- increments, that “save (the crop) for the day,” but no more.

Alfalfa hay has increased in value in the past month, in the wake of drought-reduced first cutting. Photo taken June 30, 2021, at Alpena, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

First-cutting alfalfa was about half a crop. It was damaged by frost, attacked by weevils.

“We haven’t had any rain to bring it back,” Bryan said. After the July 6 rain, he was more optimistic about a second cutting of alfalfa: “It’s not going to be great, but hopefully we’ll cut it.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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