Central SD farmer sees 4-year drought 'rotation'
FT. PIERRE, S.D. — Central South Dakota has had a bit of a rain revival, but many areas have back-slid into drought.
Brothers Pete and Rick Severson farm and ranch in conjunction south of Onida, S.D. After an excruciatingly dry May, they got 1.2 inches on June 11, another .3 inches on June 15, then smatterings after that. They're still about 3.6 inches below average rainfall for the growing season.
Rick reported it was 93 degrees on June 21. "Humid as the hubs of Hell," he says. Much of north central South Dakota, central North Dakota and northeast Montana remained in moderate to severe drought status as of June 13, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Seversons farm about 4,000 acres in a radius of about 25 miles. They run older equipment because Pete is a mechanic and he can fix the older stuff. Their four-year rotation includes corn, sunflowers, spring wheat and winter wheat, although they're trying field peas and other strategies.
It's been a weird year, Pete says. They saw a little rain last fall, and a little snow in late November and early December.
"Christmas Day we got an inch of rain — it flat, rained," he says. The snowmelt filled stock dams, but those have nearly dried out by late June.
Like most everyone else, they'd made zero-out agreements on wheat crops with crop insurance companies. They grazed a little more spring wheat and a patch of oats — and even had it fenced out for that purpose — but the nitrate tests came back too high so they decided to pull the fences and spray it out.
They planted hay millet in place of the wheat and oats. If the rains return, they'll try a cover crop cocktail — radishes, turnips, field peas. "Whatever we can get in the drill, get some grazing for the cows," Pete says.
They were to 80 to 90 percent planted with their sunflowers as of June 20, the full crop insurance deadline. Pete put the early sunflowers in as deep as he dared, but made them more shallow since the rains.
Dry déjà vu
Rick, who runs the sprayer and the small grains drill, says the crops are eerily in a similar spot to four years ago, with winter wheat failing because of spring freeze followed by dryness. With the rotation, the failed wheat is on the same fields that were hit with the conditions that hit before.
"It's disheartening to go look at it again, just four years later, and spray them out," Rick says.
In the drought four years ago, the Seversons had enough moisture to plant the damaged wheat back to millet for a second crop.
"This year, I'm so disheartened with the price, I just don't want to put any more money into it," Rick says. "Being this far behind in moisture this late in the game, it's hard to get a game changer that would change that."
Pete manages the 120-head cow herd. The Seversons background-feed the calves and typically finish up to 400 during the summer. They were shipping fats on June 21. He tried field peas as a protein source for the cattle, saving a freight bill for distillers grains.
This year's hay crop was poor. They'll scrounge and graze in places they haven't grazed for a few years.
"It's going to be hard on our pheasant population because we're probably going to graze some of the creek bottoms and areas we usually leave for pheasants," Pete says.
Rick is seeing more pheasant carcasses as he sprays because with the winter wheat gone, the hawks and eagles cleaning them up.
A tough year
Milt Handcock, general manager of CHS Midwest Cooperatives in Pierre says it's been as dry as he's ever seen in the central part of the state.
"Right here in central South Dakota there's not going to be much of a wheat crop," he says. "In counties with a lot of on-farm storage, we could have facilities that don't fill up (once) while normally we'd turn four or five times. It's going to be a tough year."
There have been tight years before, Handcock added, saying co-ops will need to do what the producers do — "make the right choices and go forward."
Dennis Hanson, with his son, Bryan, owns and operates the Ft. Pierre Auction Inc. Ranchers in his big trade zone received 1.5 inches of rain the weekend of June 11 and many in the region picked up 2 inches. Southwest areas in South Dakota got some pretty good rains, although they weren't as dry as central South Dakota farmers and ranchers.
"It all helps," Hanson says. "The country has been awful dry. Just a few weeks ago we thought we'd be okay. We thought (the rain) was coming, thought it was coming. But then it got hot and dry and it didn't rain, didn't rain."
Ranchers through mid-June brought in a lot of cattle to sell because of drought conditions. Dennis says he's seen drought before — in 1976, covering a third of the state, and another more widespread in 2002.
"A lot of replacement heifers are coming to town that wouldn't come to town normally," Dennis says. "They're out of grass or trying to save their grass, keeping their cow herd."
"People are trying to hang on," Dennis says, "but if we don't have much more rain by July 4, there's going to be a lot of cattle to move."