'Always in the back of our mind' Rain brings relief, but drought concern looms
SALEM -- The ground was soft under Kurt Stiefvater's boots as he walked around his family's farm Tuesday near Salem.
A few small pools of standing water remained in low parts of the field, a sign of the rain that fell in spurts in the region over the past few days. It's been about two weeks since Stiefvater finished planting his corn, making the recent rain all the more important.
"It's helped a lot," he said. "It came nice and slow. We let it all soak in and we didn't have run-off or anything like that."
Following the two-day rainfall of .65 inches that began Sunday, the National Weather Service says Mitchell has received a total of about 1 inch of rain so far in May, which brings the year's total to 3.07 inches. That's far short of the roughly 7 inches expected by the end of the month.
As of the May 6 data cutoff for the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report, about 25 percent of South Dakota was abnormally dry, including nearly 10 percent of the state in the southeast that is in a moderate drought. That's an increase from three months ago, when only about 5 percent of the state was abnormally dry or in some type of drought. About a year ago, nearly the entire state was still recovering from 2012's drought that hit South Dakota. At this same time last year, 99.5 percent of the state was considered to be in some form of drought.
The monitor is maintained by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. The report measures drought on a scale ranging from abnormally dry to moderate, severe, extreme and exceptional.
Stiefvater was one of many farmers in South Dakota and across the Midwest who watched as their crops suffered because of a widespread drought in 2012. It's visions of that year that have farmers watching the rain more carefully these days, Stiefvater said.
"It's always in the back of our mind," he said. "It's a little fresher for some that maybe haven't experienced it in their previous years."
State Climatologist Dennis Todey said it's unclear yet to what extent the recent rains have helped ease the dryness in the region.
"It won't fix the problem, but it will help us in the short-term," he said.
Todey said the expansion of dry areas in southeast South Dakota is due mostly to consistently dry conditions last fall and this spring.
"It just hasn't rained," he said. "Mostly, the storm systems have been impacting the farther west parts of the state, and some parts to the north."
Temperatures that are cooler than normal are expected to last through the summer, which could actually help keep moisture in the soil, Todey said.
"As long as temperatures stay cool, plants will not grow very fast and not use moisture very fast, and evaporation will be less," he said.
But that's not necessarily good news for farmers, Todey said, because as planting wraps up this spring, crops will eventually need warmer temperatures to grow to their full potential.
If the cooler temperatures continue, Stiefvater said it could start to impact crops.
"It's time for it to warm up, just to get things growing," he said. "But it has actually helped save moisture since it hasn't been hot and dry."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported this week that about 52 percent of corn planting in South Dakota has already been completed, well ahead of last year's pace. About 14 percent of soybean planting is finished, also ahead of last year's pace.
Todey said a cooler summer may not be a bad thing for Mitchell and the surrounding region because it's an area that tends to be warmer than much of the state during the summer, and that can hard on crops.