Drought conditions in South Dakota and the region in general are expected to continue into 2021, with the dry winter contributing to low soil moisture and little precipitation on the immediate horizon, according to state officials.
Experts in weather and agriculture came together Monday morning for a drought webinar sponsored by the South Dakota State University Extension. And while some recent rains have helped soften the impact of drought in some areas of South Dakota, there is a long way to go before ideal conditions are reached.
“Just yesterday, I was driving from Spearfish to Aberdeen and stopped, and I certainly got a good first-hand look at how tough the situation is out west,” said Laura Edwards, state climatologist for South Dakota. “There is not a lot of water anywhere in those draws or stock ponds.”
It’s a condition that is not uncommon in the state right now. According to information from the United States Drought Monitor, temperatures in South Dakota have been cooler than the previous week, and locally heavy amounts of rainfall of more than 2 inches helped erase long moisture deficits in eastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota, resulting in improvements in moderate drought.
In the remainder of the region, precipitation wasn’t enough to prevent worsening conditions, according to the latest monitor report. Moderate drought expanded in South Dakota and extreme drought expanded in both North and South Dakota, which reflects the growing moisture deficits and its effect on soil moisture.
“The eastern part of the state the last two weeks has seen some pretty good moisture and improvement in the situation. The northeastern part of the state got rains at the perfect time, and for the most part was ready to take in the moisture,” Edwards said. “Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the northwest or central part of the state. It’s very dry out that way, with zero to near zero precipitation for a lot of those areas.”
The United States Drought Monitor indicates conditions of extreme drought in the northwestern region of the state, switching to severe drought the further south and east. A band of moderate drought conditions runs from the southwest portion of the state east through the Interstate-90 corridor. Abnormally dry conditions persist in the south, while only a small portion of the northeast remains in drought-free conditions.
“The red area - D3 - that is about a 30- to 50-year drought. When you get down to D1, which is moderate, that’s maybe a 15- to 20-year drought. Even if you’re in the D2 area, that’s nothing to shake a stick at, that’s still a severe drought,” Edwards said.
"A year ago at this time, it’s a world of difference. Last year the map had no color, so it’s a really rapid turnaround here."
— Laura Edwards, State Climatologist for South Dakota
The dry winter of 2020 brought color back to a drought map that had shown mostly normal conditions a year ago, Edwards said. That compares closely to 2011-12, when a similar switch to dry conditions occurred.
She estimated that 73% of South Dakota is under some level of drought classification at this time.
“A year ago at this time, it’s a world of difference. Last year the map had no color, so it’s a really rapid turnaround here,” Edwards said.
Soil moisture levels have also been dropping. With little snow falling in 2020, melting runoff provided little to boost soil moisture levels this year.
“By looking at last year at this time, soil moisture is down 20% to 50% in dryer areas,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of areas in the central and west that don’t have a big carryover like we did a year ago at this time when we followed the really wet year of 2019. In some parts of the state we don’t have the reserves to count on.”
The conditions result in a mixed bag for South Dakota farmers, Edwards said. On one hand, the dry conditions should help farmers get in the fields to plant, but warmer-than-expected temperatures forecast for the spring and summer could hold or worsen the drought conditions, even with average rainfall.
Soil temperatures are still making their way up to ideal levels for planting, as well, she said.
“We peaked on temperature around the first weekend of April, but it has really cooled down since then. Soil temperatures are one thing we look at, and we’re trying to hit that 50-degree magic mark,” Edwards said. “As of (Sunday), the 4-inch deep sensors under bare ground are (indicating soil temperatures) in the 40s, but not consistently at the 50-degree mark. This week looks to be cooler than average air temps, and later this week it will be in the 30s and 40s, so there’s not a lot of warming expected on soil temperatures in the next week.”
There appears to be a dry pattern coming up, Edwards said, at least until May. Prediction models have not been able to agree on what to expect as spring temperatures and moisture arrive in the area.
“In May, we have equal chances of warmer to average except for some of the far southern tier of the state. Precipitation-wise there’s not much agreement or consensus in the models. We have equal chances of wetter, drier or average. We would like to see some wetter conditions to make up for some of this drought, but it does not look likely in May,” Edwards said.
Edwards believed some timely rains will be able to help stave off the dry conditions, even if precipitation continues below normal into the spring.
“Even with below-average moisture, if we get those timely rains, that can kind of help us stay steady and get decent productivity this year,” Edwards said.
Jack Davis, a crops business manager field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, said the dry conditions will limit prevent plant acres since farmers will be able to get into low-lying areas and other parts of the field that may otherwise have standing water.
“We didn’t have much prevent plant acres in 2017 and 2018, and then in 2019 we set the record for prevent plant acres,” Davis said. “There are acres (this year) that can probably be planted beyond what we’ve normally done. I’m not sure if that will go beyond our expectations, but if we’re drier this year maybe those acres will get planted.”
Davis estimated that South Dakota will see around 5.6 million acres of corn planted this year along with about 5.7 million acres of soybeans. With prices expected to be good for both, Davis said hay may become more secondary than in past years.
“We are down the lowest (on hay) we’ve been recently, we’re right at 3 million acres harvested expected, which is on the low side,” Davis said. “Usually that’s at 3.2 million to 3.5 million acres. Our total stocks of hay with the nice winter are coming through pretty good. One of the tough things with drought is that we may not have as much hay available, at least on the new crop side. There will be more demand to plant those acres with principal crops.”
There will be ups and downs as the season progresses, Edwards said. For now, it looks like South Dakota can expect the drought conditions to continue at least until mid-summer.
“Odds are leaning toward warmer than average temperatures across the country, and also drier than average. That’s not to say we can’t see some ups and downs in the drought condition,” Edwards said. “Things can also get worse, but in the long term, at least through July, it looks pretty likely that the drought will hang on in some way or form.”