Aug. 12—Drought improved slightly in southwestern North Dakota over the past week but worsened dramatically in the eastern part of the state.
Extreme and even a small area of exceptional drought now covers most of the Red River Valley, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, released Thursday. A large chunk of the southwest improved from severe drought to moderate. But extreme or exceptional drought — the worst two categories — now cover three-fourths of the state, up from a little less than two-thirds last week. All of the state remains in some form of drought.
Throughout the Northern Plains, "Small scattered areas of heavy rain induced localized improvement, but most areas received little rainfall at best, leading to increasing moisture deficits and thus expansion and intensification of dryness and drought," wrote Richard Tinker, a meteorologist and drought expert with several agencies including the Climate Prediction Center.
The weekly crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows 92% of topsoil and 89% of subsoil in North Dakota as being short or very short of moisture — slight increases again over the week.
Nearly two-thirds of the state's staple spring wheat crop is rated as poor or very poor, and about half of the soybean and corn crops are in those categories. Many producers have begun harvesting corn for livestock forage instead of grain, according to North Dakota State University Extension.
"The impacts to agriculture continue to climb as lack of forage is leading ranchers to reduce their herds, all while the cutting of failed cash crops, such as corn, for hay is quickly spreading across the state," the National Weather Service said in its latest drought briefing, issued over the weekend. "Water quality concerns due to evaporative concentration and harmful algal blooms remain a significant threat to wildlife and livestock in smaller lakes, wetlands and water supply features.
"Regrettably, even if there was a return to near-normal precipitation for this time of year, there is no reason to believe these problems will go away anytime soon, and are now likely to persist going into winter," the report said.
North Dakota has been warmer and much drier than average since last October. Climate statistics from the weather service show that last month was the second-warmest July in Bismarck since 1874 — a span of nearly 150 years.
So far this year, Bismarck has had 11 days with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher. That's the third most in the past 146 years, behind 12 days in 1988 and 14 in 1936, according to the weather service.
"August is favored for both above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation across all of North Dakota," the agency said in its latest drought briefing.
Forage is in short supply in North Dakota. Pasture and range conditions across the state are rated 79% poor or very poor, and 75% of the alfalfa hay crop is in those categories, according to the crop report. Stock water supplies are rated 88% short or very short, the report said. None of the percentages changed significantly over the week.
Gov. Doug Burgum earlier this week temporarily eased some driving restrictions for truckers hauling hay, water and livestock to help drought-stricken ranchers bring in supplemental supplies and move cattle they're selling off due to lack of feed. Burgum's order waiving hours of service restrictions for truckers is in effect for about a month.
The federal government last month denied a request by North Dakota leaders to allow struggling ranchers to hay idled Conservation Reserve Program grassland before Aug. 1, the end of the nesting season. The date is in place to protect wildlife populations, but ranchers — backed by wildlife agencies and groups — sought an earlier start to ensure hay was of good quality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture left the starting date in place. Now that it has passed, ranchers in bad drought areas can hay CRP while still receiving their full government rental payment for the land.
"It still does good, but the quality has diminished over time, especially with the relentless wind and extreme heat we have experienced," North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson said.
"At our national convention today, a meteorologist gave a long-term weather forecast, predicting prolonged drought through this time next year, with a slight reprieve beginning then and a wet 2023 winter," she said Thursday. "I also learned today that one-third of the U.S. cowherd is in a drought-impacted area. That's sad. Despite the old saying, misery does not love company."
The state and federal governments have implemented numerous programs to help drought-stricken producers. Details on available drought resources in North Dakota can be found at https://www.nd.gov/ndda/drought-resources. Producers can access the federal Agriculture Department's Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool or Disaster-at-a-Glance fact sheet at www.farmers.gov.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., plans a public roundtable discussion about disaster assistance at 11 a.m. Friday at Farm Credit Services of North Dakota, 1650 9th Ave. SE in Rugby.
The U.S. Drought Monitor is a partnership of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
North Dakota typically has two wildfire seasons — before spring green-up, and in late-summer and fall when new-season grasses dry out.
"Hot and dry conditions have accelerated the curing process," the National Weather Service said in its drought briefing. "In addition, some areas continue to have a good stand of cured fuels from last year, with minimal growth on this year's grass due to the drought and unfavorable temperatures during the growing period. This continues to bring increased fire concerns."
The hot, dry conditions this summer have led to 2,009 wildfires burning 118,831 acres, according to Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service. The number of fires is more than double last year's total, and the blackened acres are about 10 times what burned in all of 2020.
"Usually we see the fall fire season start to take off in late August and into September, due to the hot weather and lack of moisture curing fuels," Hill said. "But it doesn't look like we'll have much of a distinction between the two seasons this year due to the prolonged dry conditions and hot weather already this season."
Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or [email protected].
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