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Don Schoderbek

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2017 Montana/Dakota Drought: breaking it down

Drought has again reared its ugly head, this time in the mixed grass rangelands of Montana and the Dakotas. As recently as May, moisture conditions were excellent — less than 5 percent of the U.S. was experiencing drought conditions — especially when compared to 2012, when more than 65 percent of the U.S. was under an unusually intense drought. However, an area of high pressure stalled over the western Dakotas and eastern Montana during late May and June, and beneficial growing season moisture didn't fall.

When combined with abnormally warm (and rising) temperatures across the U.S., you have a recipe for drought on the northern Great Plains.

Where is the drought?

The affected area is roughly centered on the Montana-North Dakota-South Dakota junction point. North Dakota has borne the brunt of the drought, with 46.9 percent of the state under severe drought conditions. The worst-hit areas are north and west of the Missouri River (Burleigh, Morton, Ward, Williams, Stark, Mercer, Adams, Billings, Bowman, Divide, Golden Valley, Hettinger, McLean and Slope counties). Much of this area is high-quality rangeland, dominated by blue grama, western needlegrass and western and slender wheatgrass. There are also large areas of mixed farming and moderate drought conditions extend across much of the state.

“Much of the state is going to see a 30 to 50 percent loss in forage on pastures (in 2017), even if it rains in July and August. It will green up and look pretty but it won’t have the nutrition. We grow our grasses in May and June.”

In Montana, 34.9 percent of the state (38.2 million acres) is affected. The worst areas are in the northeastern corner of the state (Phillips, Valley, Daniels, Sheridan, Roosevelt, Garfield, McCone, Richland, Prairie, Fallon and Wibaux counties). Affected lands include the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, as well as extensive private and public rangelands, improved pastures and croplands (including part of the Hi-Line wheat region).

South Dakota also has a significant area of drought (16.8 million acres), located in the north-central area of the state (Campbell, Dewey, Walworth, Potter, McPherson, Ziebach and Edmunds counties). This affects the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Indian Reservations, as well as private croplands east of the Missouri River.

What are the effects of the drought?

Though this drought is in its early stages, ripple effects are already being felt across the nation. A good example of this is the recent rally in spring wheat prices, with futures in the $7.50 per bushel range (and potentially much higher). North Dakota is the largest spring wheat producer in the U.S., and any disruption of this supply could have significant economic effects. Spring wheat is a major ingredient in commercial flour products, pizza dough and bagels.

The livestock market is also beginning to feel the effects of destocking. Multiple media reports have described large sell-offs at area sale barns, selling thousands of lots and staying open late into the night. According to Matt Lachenmeier, fieldman for the Kist Livestock Auction in Mandan, N.D., "Many of the cattle coming to market are older cows, open cows and heifers which ranchers had planned to keep and breed … they're trying to save grass for their best cow-calf pairs." Data from the recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture Cattle On Feed Report supports this. May 2017 feedlot placements were 12 percent higher than 2016 — a significant and substantial increase.

This means that more animals — and likely lighter animals — are moving into feedlots sooner than expected. "Northern Plains drought could play a role over the balance of (2017), providing a flow of lighter-weight cattle into the feedlot pipeline and maintaining availability of animals," said Washington, D.C.-based Katelyn McCullock a Farm Bureau economist. "The intensity and the length of the drought will define how large of a role that is."

Rangelands are also facing significant challenges. This is because the native plant community has a large component of cool-season (C3) grasses. "Much of the state is going to see a 30 to 50 percent loss in forage on pastures (in 2017), even if it rains in July and August," said North Dakota State University Extension Specialist Kevin Sedivec. "It will green up and look pretty but it won't have the nutrition. We grow our grasses in May and June."

The long-term impacts of the 2017 drought will likely be felt for a long time on the high-quality grasslands and croplands of the Montana-Dakota country.

— Don Schoderbek, based in Sterling, Colo., covers ranching, resource and agricultural issues across the grasslands of the High Plains. He is also a private range consultant at Range Horizons LLC, a firm that specializes in precision ranching, mapping and UAS operations. He can be reached at don@rangehorizons.com, or at (970) 520-9294.