Drought strikes Midwest hard, fast

Erin Beck

Humidity hovers in the air. The sun blazes down from a burning sky, the temperature skyrockets to beat the all-time high in Sioux Falls. Acres upon acres of crops shrivel and wither under the intense heat while grass all across the Midwest curls from the lack of rain.

The U.S. is reeling under the onslaught of one of Mother Nature’s backhanded blows: drought.

The drought of 2012 is the largest widespread drought the U.S. has seen since 1988. SDSU extension state climatologist Dennis Todey said that the damage in S.D. is very location specific.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, more than a quarter of the state is classified as D3, or under extreme drought conditions. The northeastern part of the state has held up best under the extraordinary weather, whereas the southern and western parts of S.D. are suffering from very warm conditions and limited rainfall. Counties in the southeastern corner of S.D. have actually topped records from the Dust Bowl for lack of precipitation.

The drought has led to very visible effects in agriculture. According to Terry Knudson, general manager of Ag First Farmers Coop in Brookings, crop yields are expected to go down 25 to 30 percent, a major blow to agricultural production.

“We’ve gone from a trend of 168 bushels per acre down to 120,” Knudson said.

With yields poorer than anticipated, an early harvest is already underway. The possibility of corn reaching marketable maturity is slim, meaning many farmers across the Midwest have begun chopping corn for silage instead of combining it for ethanol or grain production.

“A lot of northern-grown row crops are going to be better than southern ones for the first time in history,” Knudson said.

Not only have crops suffered from the extreme heat and lack of water, forage production has been one of the worst hits in the 2012 drought. High temperatures and dry conditions extending from the spring have left very poor forage conditions throughout the Midwest.

South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association President Jeff Smeenk, a rancher in Newell, has seen firsthand the damage forages have experienced this summer. Dry-land forage ground, hay ground without irrigation, barely produced beyond the first cutting. Many ranchers don’t have any hay to put up at all in western S.D.

With no significant moisture since July 2011, rangeland in western S.D. has dried up, leaving very few options for grazing cattle.

“It’s not looking very good at all,” Smeenk said.

Stock ponds, a heavily relied-on water source in western S.D., have dried up, leaving ranchers with the expensive task of hauling water across long distances to water livestock.

Ranchers also face mounting hay prices.

“Hay is two to three times higher than I’ve ever seen hay prices,” Smeenk said.

With no hay produced over the summer, astronomically high hay prices, little water and hardly any range grass to carry livestock through the winter, many ranchers are toying with the option of selling their calves early along with some of their cows.

“Cattle numbers are definitely on the decrease,” Smeenk said.

Smeenk noted that sale barns in the area are seeing huge numbers of cattle being run through, while cattle prices have decreased due to the high supply of cattle.

As the drought stretches across the U.S., feedlots are also feeling the heat. Todd Wilkinson, who acts as vice president for the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, manages a feedlot near Iroquois, S.D.

“It’s like feeding cattle 30 years ago,” Wilkinson said. “We’re going back to a lot more roughage and a lot less corn.”

With a low supply and high demand for corn, corn prices have soared, making feed very expensive to purchase for cattle producers and feedlot managers like Wilkinson.

“Corn prices have had a dramatic impact in terms of our ability to make our breakeven,” Wilkinson said.

With poor corn yields, Wilkinson, like many farmers across the Midwest, has been harvesting most of his crop for silage. Instead of putting up nine to ten thousand tons of silage, this year Wilkinson chopped 24 to 27 thousand tons.

Wilkinson also predicts changes in finishing cattle this year. Having to adjust feed rations from 110 days on corn to just 60 days on corn will push back the dates on marketing cattle. Instead of having his livestock finish next April, Wilkinson is extending the marketing date to May or June. The adjustments in diet will not only impact the marketing date but also how the cattle will yield and grade.

“It’ll be an interesting year,” Wilkinson said.

With the strike of the drought, Dr. Alexander Smart in the natural resource management department suggests implementing a drought plan.

According to Smart, a drought plan acts as a course of action that can be followed when a drought does strike. It allows a farm or ranch operator to minimize financial harm and stress and avoids the risk involved with simply waiting to see what happens.

A drought plan maps out goals and a set of trigger dates that detail what course of action to take if production hasn’t reached a certain stage by a certain date.

“Drought is a natural part of ranching, especially in the Great Plains,” Smart said. “People get caught off guard after a couple of good years. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Although the immediate implications of the drought seem to mainly affect agriculture, they will also affect college students in a major way.

With an overflow of cattle on the market, meat prices will temporarily go down, but with a forecasted trend of lower cattle numbers, meat prices will swing upward. With a scarcity of corn on the market, many food items that use corn will also increase. Knudson predicts that it will take five to six months before the impacts will be fully realized.

“There’s a large part of the population that have never seen a true crop disaster as far as lack of rainfall, heat and crop conditions,” Knudson said, referring to college students. “These are implications that will affect everyone down the road, even if they’re not directly involved in agriculture.”