The early October snowstorm that buried much of the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota is creating an immediate crisis for farmers and ranchers and promising to present problems that will linger into next year’s growing season.
The storm that moved in late Wednesday dropped snow for four days. Harvey had a storm total of 30 inches, and Bismarck a little more than 17, according to the National Weather Service.
Snowdrifts in the Jamestown area in recent days have risen as high as 5 feet, said Ryan Wanzek, who farms land south and west of the city. In his fields, corn and soybean crops sit unharvested after near-historic rainfall late this summer.
It’s a situation farmers across the state are facing, and without a crop to sell, Wanzek is worried many of them will run into cash flow problems.
“If you didn’t get anything off and can’t combine until January, how do you pay your bills?” he said.
There also is concern in ranching country, even with the storm being forecast well in advance.
“It was nice to have a little bit of ahead-of-time notice -- people have been in full-speed scramble mode the past few days preparing for the storm,” said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association. “But the challenge this early in the season, cows are still on grass (pasture), and there’s a lot of cow-calf pairs out there.”
When snowstorms threaten, ranchers get their cattle into farmyards or to other places of shelter, “but it’s a little different this early in the season,” Ellingson said.
Wet weather broke several precipitation records across the western part of the state in September, turning many rural roads into quagmires. That worsens the problem, according to Ellingson.
And now, “we’re talking about some pretty phenomenal amounts of snow,” she said. “There’s only a certain number of places (cattle) can be protected from that.”
State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Gov. Doug Burgum expressed support for farmers and ranchers who have been struggling in the midst of the extremely wet weather and the early, heavy snowfall. The state is exploring potential help such as seeking some sort of federal disaster aid.
“In the wake of this storm, we need to keep our agricultural community in mind," Burgum said. "After an unusually wet late summer and early fall, this current weather pattern will only exacerbate some of the challenges farmers and ranchers are facing. The state is exploring all possible means to assist the agricultural community.”
The most recent crop report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, released three days before the storm hit, showed that about 10% of North Dakota’s staple spring wheat crop is still in the field. The harvest of all crops in the state is well behind the average pace, as is the development of major late-season crops including sunflowers and corn. Less than one-fourth of the corn crop is even mature.
“We recognize the challenges our producers are experiencing,” Goehring said. “The wet weather has caused much disease in cereal crops and has created an inability to harvest remaining cereal grains and row crops, as well as potatoes and sugar beets.”
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Farmers with wheat still in the field are wondering what to do with it, as it's likely damaged or of poor quality.
Saturated soil makes putting up wheat for hay or silage difficult or impossible.
"Grazing standing mature or ripening wheat is not a common practice; however, it is an alternative that some producers are considering," said Miranda Meehan, NDSU Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist.
Quality, along with access to wet or snow-covered fields, also is a concern when it comes to hay for cattle, according to Ellingson.
“There’s probably a lot of quantity out there -- that needs to be retrieved, for one. And two, the hay that has been put up, quality is a concern because of the excess moisture,” she said.
Goehring said he has expressed concerns to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency about quality discounts on grain.
“Storage on farms is limited to hold poor-quality grain for an extended period of time in order to take advantage of fewer discounts months later,” he said.
A similar storm struck the Jamestown area about a year ago. It’s still fresh in Wanzek’s mind -- but that storm wasn’t preceded by a wet summer.
“The difference is there’s so much moisture underneath,” he said. “We were dry going into last year. The snow had somewhere to go.”
The problem will be on farmers’ minds through the winter, he said, because “planting next year is going to be affected no matter what.”
Goehring urged farmers to take care not only of their farm operations and their livestock but also themselves.
“I know it’s difficult to talk about your situation with family and friends, but please share struggles and concerns with them or with someone else you trust,” he said. “Also, please utilize services available, as they can be a good resource.”
Wanzek said what he and other farmers need is drying weather -- a lot of it -- or for the blanket of snow to melt away so the ground can freeze. It turns into “a big waiting game” for the rest of the year, he said.
“It’s not easy, but farming never is,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”