Drought planning for farmers & cattle owners

NDSU Extension Agent-Ward County provides helpful advice

The Ward County area is in the Extreme drought category and has been there for several weeks now, says Paige Brummund, NDSU Extension Agent-Ward County. This field in southwest Ward County is extremely dry. Eloise Ogden/MDN

Editor’s Note: Paige Brummund, Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, with NDSU Extension-Ward County, reponded to several questions from The Minot Daily News regarding crops, livestock and the drought.

1. How are markets and moisture influencing farmers’ planting intentions?

PB: The October-February season has been the driest on record for N.D. Currently, as of the April 1st report, 100% of the state is in drought. Eighty-five percent of the state is in at least a Severe Drought category, and 47% of the state is in an Extreme Drought category. The Ward County area is in the Extreme drought category and has been there for several weeks now.

Many farmers are crunching numbers and researching crops that will best fit into their operations on a dry year, while still maintaining their crop rotations and yield potential if we are to get some rain. Input costs and crop insurance options are other factors that producers must consider when thinking of changing their planting intentions.

2. Are there any farmers who feel it is so dry they won’t even plant their crops?

PB: I have heard some chatter about some producers not planning on planting this spring. However, early spring drought conditions does not guarantee that the entire growing season will be dry and planning for a somewhat average crop year is recommended. Also, keep in mind that crop insurance requires normal farming production practices are used. Some producers maybe planning on switching up their rotation and planting more acres of a crop with lower input costs and reducing acres of crops with higher input costs.

3. What is NDSU Extension advising farmers to do – plant their crops or don’t plant at all?

PB: Planting is recommended as no one knows for certain when and how much it will rain. What crops will fit your situation best will vary greatly between operations. Having a plan and thinking through various scenarios closely is advised.

4. What are farmers and ranchers telling you? Is this the driest spring they’ve ever seen?

PB: There is uncertainty and there are some stressful decisions to be made as we come into spring. I’m not sure if it is the driest the farmers have ever seen, but the April 1st-released Drought Severity and Coverage Index (DSI) reached a historical-high value of 331, exceeding the previous high value recorded on August 8, 2006, by two points. This also marks the most extensive Extreme Drought coverage on record since 2000, exceeding the previous most extensive coverage on August 15, 2017. The estimated population in the drought area in N.D. is 672,592.

5. What are the plans for cattle owners? Are most of the sloughs and waterholes dried up or drying up? What is the advise for them (cattle owners). Is it predicted there will be a lot of cattle sold or will cattle owners just wait and see?

PB: Drought is even more concerning for livestock producers. Already we are seeing and knowing that water quality concerns will be a major issue this year. Many stock ponds and other surface water sources are extremely low or completely dried up. Sulfates are going to be a concern this year and producers should be testing both the sulfates and total dissolved solids (TDS) in their livestock water sources. Plans should be made to haul water or move cattle as needed, remembering that along with monitoring the quantity, producers need to also check the water quality.

The other challenge with this drought is that the grass production will not be able to reach normal levels because the soil moisture is so depleted. Supplemental feed may be required for some producers as many pastures have been drought stressed for a number of years now.

Looking at trigger dates and making decisions accordingly will be needed.

April 15th-30th: If drought conditions occur throughout April, the growth of introduced cool-season pastures (crested wheatgrass, smooth brome grass) will be below average. If lower production is expected, delay cattle turnout and feed hay longer, evaluate alternative feeds available or plan for fewer grazing days. If these grasses comprise hay land, expect below-average production and plan to grow emergency feed or purchase hay.

May: If drought conditions occur in May, expect reduced forage production of 10% to 40% or more, depending on the severity of the drought. Plan for turning cattle out on grass earlier, removing cattle earlier, reducing the stocking rate or weaning calves early. Plan for alternative forages or feeding options if none of the above are desired. Plan to begin grazing tame pastures or post-contract Conservation Reserve Program lands if available.

June: If drought conditions occur in June, expect reduced forage production of 30% to 70% or more, depending on the timing and amount of rain, severity of the drought and past grazing management. Plan for removing cattle earlier, reducing the stocking rate, weaning calves early or culling cows. Assess the establishment and stand quality of summer annual forages and soil moisture conditions. Graze pastures that have drinking water shortages later in the grazing season, saving pastures with better water resources for summer use.

If hot, dry conditions persist, monitor dugouts and ponds for cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), which is toxic to livestock. Restrict livestock’s access to the water if it is toxic. Make plans to provide alternative, safe water sources.

Take precautions to prevent nitrate poisoning because some plants accumulate nitrates during periods of drought.

– Maintain a monitoring plan to measure utilization and minimize overgrazing.

– Continue to assess the water sources.


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