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Drought improves dramatically in North Dakota; wildfire activity weakens significantly

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Cattle sales boom

Nicole Hanson, of Sherwood, surveys the cattle pens from the catwalk at Kist Livestock in Mandan on Wednesday afternoon. "We sold 193 calves here today," she said. Hanson was among a number of North Dakota ranchers selling at the weekly Wednesday sale, which was the biggest sales day of 2021 so far, according to Marlene Fricke in the Kist office. She said 5,803 cows had been brought in, and there were two semitrailers waiting to unload. "I’m guessing there's going to be close to 6,000," she said. Feed to sustain cattle over the winter is in short supply this year due to the prolonged drought.

Widespread precipitation in North Dakota over the past week has dramatically improved drought across the entire state and significantly weakened wildfire activity.

Much of western and central North Dakota a week ago was in extreme drought, the second-worst category. The bulk of the area this week has been upgraded to severe drought, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map. And a pocket of exceptional drought -- the worst category -- in Golden Valley County has improved to severe drought.

A large portion of eastern North Dakota also has been upgraded. Much of the region is now listed only as "abnormally dry," and most of the southeast has been moved out of any drought category.

"Excluding the northwest corner of North Dakota, 14-day precipitation amounts have totaled 2 to 6 inches," wrote Climate Prediction Center Meteorologist Brad Pugh.

The city of Bismarck has received just under 3 inches of rain this month -- nearly one-third of the total for the year, according to National Weather Service data. Precipitation in the city is still 6.6 inches below normal for the year, however.

Nearly all of Burleigh and Morton counties was in extreme drought just two weeks ago. Southern portions of the counties are now listed as being only abnormally dry, with much of the rest listed in moderate drought. Northern Burleigh is in the severe category, but that's still an upgrade from the start of October.

Crops and cattle

Recent rain and snow have boosted soil moisture in North Dakota for two straight weeks. The weekly crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service rates topsoil moisture supplies 51% short or very short, and subsoil supplies 61% in those categories. Two weeks ago, those percentages were 72 and 77, respectively.

Stock water supplies also improved this week, with 77% being rated poor or very poor, compared to 81% last week and 85% two weeks ago. 

North Dakota pasture and rangelands continue to decline, however, with 80% being rated poor or very poor, compared to 76% last week. With feed to sustain cattle over the approaching winter in short supply, cattle sales are booming. Kist Livestock in Mandan said it had its biggest sale day of the year on Wednesday, with about 6,000 cows brought in.


The recent precipitation hampered the harvest of row crops in North Dakota, but the harvest of sunflowers is near the average pace, and soybeans and corn are well ahead of average.

"We’ve had some decent weather except for about a week and a half ago, when everyone received anywhere from 5-6 inches of rain," said Oakes-area farmer Drew Courtney, secretary-treasurer of the the North Dakota Corn Growers Association. "That set everyone back a little bit, but no one is going to complain about starting to build some subsoil for next year -- considering that’s what got us mostly through this year."

The state and federal governments have implemented numerous programs to help drought-stricken farmers and ranchers. Details on available drought resources in North Dakota can be found at Producers can access the federal Agriculture Department's Disaster Assistance Discovery Tool or Disaster-at-a-Glance fact sheet at

Weakening wildfires

The precipitation and a cooldown from record heat early this month have curtailed a wild year of wildfire activity.

"We are still at the same numbers for wildfire acreage and totals as we were last week, which is a great testament to how the recent rains and other conditions have helped," said Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service.

There have been about 2,400 wildfires in North Dakota burning about 125,500 acres this year. The number of fires is more than 2 ½ times the number all of last year, and the scorched acres are more than 10 times what burned in all of 2020.

All western and central North Dakota counties except for Burleigh, Emmons and Kidder continue to have some form of outdoor burning restrictions in place. The entire state was in the low fire risk category on Thursday. 

Information on current fire danger indexes and county burn bans is available at Fire restrictions on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands are at

(Tribune photographer Tom Stromme contributed to this story.)

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or


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