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Drought effects improve in southwestern ND, expand to the north

SHIELDS, N.D. — The grass shines deep green in southwestern North Dakota. Some fields of small grains have begun to push out of the ground. Alfalfa is up nearly half a foot in some fields. And farmers continue to progress on planting after a slow warm up in the spring.

Everything is slow so far in 2018, says Darrick Frank. The warm up was slow, and the pastures are behind.

Frank farms and ranches south of Flasher, N.D., just into Grant County with his wife, Chassie, and his parents and two brothers. The Franks run about 1,000 cow-calf pairs on pastures around southwestern North Dakota and into South Dakota — some of the areas hardest hit by the 2017 drought.

Grass is green in southwestern North Dakota, though some effects of last year's drought remain.Farmers and ranchers in parts of the Dakotas and Montana regarded the 2017 drought to be among the worst droughts in recent memory. Each of the states had land in exceptional drought, the most serious category in the U.S. Drought Monitor. Montana also had to deal with wildfires from the dry summer. Conditions have improved from last summer in much of South Dakota, though some moderate drought and abnormally dry conditions remain. In Montana, an abnormally snowy winter cleared up drought conditions in all but the far northeast.

However, the U.S. Drought Monitor released May 17 had almost 90 percent of North Dakota in at least abnormally dry conditions, with areas to the west in moderate drought and a small band of severe drought in the northcentral, which makes up 5.5 percent of the state.

Last year, the drought was worst in southern and western North Dakota. But there has been some relief in those areas. So far, everything is green around the Frank place. The second week in May brought half an inch of rain to the area.

"That's really helped," Frank says. "But we're still concerned."

For Frank and other farmers and ranchers in many parts of the region, it's too soon to say that the drought is over. Stockpiled hay supplies are dwindling, a problem compounded by the slow maturing pastures. And while southern North Dakota was the beneficiary of some gentle, soaking rains, other parts of the region haven't been as lucky.

National Weather Service hydrologist Allen Schlag says for parts of the region still mired in drought conditions, to shake off the designations would take marked improvements in the impacts of moisture deficits. Even if the area receives normal precipitation, there's still a "hangover effect" from last year, which will make timely rains all the more important.

"As soon as we go two weeks without (moisture), you'll notice very quickly that the grass may remain green but there's no growth," Schlag says, noting that already is happening in the area north of Highway 200 in North Dakota.

The Franks are still feeding cows as they wait for their pasture to be ready for grazing.For the Franks, the 2017 drought meant selling about 150 cow-calf pairs in June. While some of the cows would have been culled in a normal year, they wouldn't usually have sold them until after weaning. The Franks also only kept about 100 heifers for replacement, compared to the 160 to 200 they usually would. Most of the crops were baled for feed.

"We combined the corn, but the wheat, even the soybeans we baled, and the canola," Frank says.

Their hay supply has held up so far, but because the pastures have been slow to mature, they're still feeding many of their cows. They took some pairs to pasture on May 14, but most of the pastures are nowhere near ready.

"I would give it a couple more weeks at least before you fully stock them," he says.

Frank doesn't expect to run out of hay.

"We try to keep a lot for carryover," he says. "We'll be fine for this year."

But getting enough hay for next winter will take more timely rains.

Schlag says southern North Dakota, the area that fared the worst in last year's drought, has caught the most rain so far this season.

"There was nothing of any great significance, but if you're routinely getting a quarter inch, a third of an inch, a half of an inch of moisture, that is enough to really improve one's outlook," he says.

Despite recent rains, subsoil moisture remains low in places hit by the 2017 drought.The Bismarck area and along Interstate 94 is holding its own as far as drought goes, Schlag says. But from Highway 200 north, he sees "slippage." It's been dry for two to three weeks, with little precipitation.

Schlag doesn't expect any large systems to bring rain to the area. That wouldn't be typical for the climate of the region. Instead, moisture for the coming months likely will come in thunderstorms, which may bring enough rain to one place while leaving another dry.

"That is actually pretty typical for North Dakota in the summertime," he says.

Some parts of the southwest received timely rains in July and August 2017, salvaging late season crops, including soybeans. Schlag says that moisture likely was used up by the crops and vegetation or lost to runoff, meaning little soaked in.

"Soil moistures are much lower than last year," he says.

He expects that could lead to a "lag effect" this year that may slow or hurt crops. Most areas will be reliant on timely rains to make or break a crop.

For farmers and ranchers like Frank, the conditions means finances get tight.

"It doesn't seem like you ever run out of work," he says with a laugh. "Just funds."

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