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Better moisture: Northern Plains drought may improve in coming months

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In a webinar hosted by the National Drought Mitigation Center, South Dakota Climate Office, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and United States Department of Agriculture on June 21, experts focused on the current drought situation in the Northern Plains Region, particularly throughout North and South Dakota, Montana and northeastern Wyoming.


According to South Dakota State University Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards, the Northern Plains Region is the epicenter of drought for the nation currently, with a rapid onset of severe drought impacts experienced, particularly in the agricultural sector.

“We haven’t seen much yet as far as widespread water restrictions, but it really has affected our producers in the region,” she said.

When looking at the region, Edwards explained that over 21 percent of the area is experiencing some level of drought.

“We can compare that to a few months ago, where about 13 percent of the region was in drought,” commented Edwards.

Over the last month, she stressed some areas have experienced rapid drought onset.

“Some of the areas in Montana and the Dakotas have had three class degradations in their drought conditions over a single month,” Edwards continued.


Across the region, Edwards noted that feedback on drought impacts is being received from Extension staff, producers and commodity groups, as well as federal agencies.

The largest impact of the drought throughout the region is the failure of wheat and small grain crops.

“Widespread failures involve winter wheat planted in the fall and spring wheat,” said Edwards.

She continued, “I know there have been tens of thousands of acres at least of failed wheat that’s been cut for hay or sprayed, with the hope that they can replant another crop this season.”

Edwards noted North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana produce approximately 45 percent of the nation’s wheat crop.

“The crop condition for spring wheat this year is worse at this time of year than the previous 10 to 15 years. It’s a really tough situation out there right now,” she commented.

Other impacts

In addition to impacting small grain production, Edwards commented the drought has resulted in multiple burn bans and county declarations of drought.

“I’ve heard discussion of potential firework bans as we get close to the Fourth of July in several areas,” said Edwards.

The cattle sector, particularly in the Dakotas and Montana, has seen impacts in both increased sales and increased illness.

“Cattle sales, including cow/calf pairs, indicate a lot of herd culling going on,” she commented. “We’re also hearing about a lot of livestock illnesses, including dust pneumonias, for people feeding in lots.”

Other impacts for rangelands and pastures include reduced pasture growth, uneven emergence and thin stands.

One of the leading drought indicators this spring was poor livestock water quality, she continued.

“Poor livestock water quality is something we saw early on and was one of the first indicators this spring of a problem,” said Edwards.

Contributing factors

Several factors contributed to the severe drought conditions, but Edwards explained experts are primarily attributing it to a later-than-average fall freeze throughout the region.

“As of mid-November of last year, a lot of frost dates were a few weeks later than usual, resulting in a lot of the bonus growing time in the fall that depleted the soil moisture reserves,” she explained.

While many areas throughout the region, including the South Dakota-North Dakota border, received substantial snowfall, she commented it did not largely impact soil moisture.

Unseasonably warm conditions during other parts of the year also played a role in the drought conditions.

“Looking at the current year to today, certainly the really warm February we had was notable, and the really warm June is contributing, too,” Edwards noted.


Currently, eastern Montana and the western Dakotas are experiencing 50 percent or less of the average rainfall for this time of year, said Edwards, noting the region has also been experiencing warmer than average temperatures.

In the eight- to 14-day outlook however, Edwards commented the region is predicted to have cooler than average weather.

“We’re going to see highs in the 60s. The warm dry weather appears to be gradually moving to the east,” she continued. “Moisture wise, there’s some likelihood of being wetter than average. Maybe we’ll see a shift in the moisture pattern.”

While the impacts already felt in the agricultural industry, particularly in wheat and cattle, cannot be reversed, Edwards is hopeful the outlook will be more positive for the rest of the year.

“Looking at July through September, we’re leaning toward warmer than average temperatures for most of the country except Montana,” Edwards said.

She concluded, “The moisture outlook in those three months is more optimistic. We’re hoping this verifies, as well, and we see a wetter than average fall.”

Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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