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Like a lot of farmers and ranchers who coped with severe drought in 2017, John Weinand is praying for rain.

“One year is not so bad. Most people can get by on one year,” said Weinand, who farms near Beulah and is past president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. “But two years in a row, that would be pretty catastrophic.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the 2017 drought had a $2.5 billion economic impact for North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

That estimate likely doesn’t include indirect impacts, such as producers spending less on Main Street.

“It does have a significant impact because our economy is so strongly rooted in agriculture,” said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

Because of the severity of the drought in 2017 and the low amount of moisture the state has received this winter, Ellingson said producers are concerned about another dry year.

Ranchers are taking steps to prepare, such as assessing their feed resource base and planning to allow pasture lands a longer recovery time this spring before turning out cattle, Ellingson said.

In some cases, producers may do additional culling and keep the most productive and profitable animals, she said.

“People are still hopeful that we’re going to get some moisture here moving forward,” Ellingson said. “The stage is very much set by May and June moisture. That really can dictate the long-term production of those grasslands.”

State climatologist Adnan Akyuz recently said drought conditions could continue into 2018.

“The lack of snow is concerning in areas scarred by the worst drought to hit North Dakota since 2006,” Akyuz said. “We do not have the excess moisture we had last fall and winter, which was the ninth wettest September-through-February period on record.”

The National Weather Service’s drought outlook through May 31 predicts that drought will persist in north central and northwest North Dakota. The outlook forecasts enough precipitation to ease drought conditions somewhat in areas of southwest North Dakota.

At a recent conference at Bismarck State College, producers gathered to discuss strategies to prepare for another potential dry year.

“Multiple years of dry conditions can really be detrimental. You don’t have the moisture in the soil; you don’t have that buffer there,” said Dave Archer, research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Northern Great Plains Research Lab.

Producers discussed strategies for finding crop success during a drought and grazing strategies for pastures stressed by last summer’s dry weather.

“Farmers tend to be optimistic overall,” Archer said. “But they’re still going to want to be prepared and recognizing we live in an area where weather is quite variable. We’ve got to be prepared for that variability.”

Ranchers will continue to benefit from drought disaster livestock water supply projects the State Water Commission has helped fund. The agency has made $2 million available in matching funds for producers in drought-stricken areas to pay for new wells, hookups to water pipelines and other projects.

“Those are things that will help for many years to come,” Ellingson said.

Weinand said he doesn’t plan to do anything significantly different this year, other than keep a close eye on keeping costs down.

“We do live in an arid climate, so we kind of expect to be dry,” he said. “I think everybody is a bit concerned, but by nature we’re pretty resilient here.”

(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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