NEAR GOLDEN VALLEY -- Recent rains have helped green the land around Kim Entze’s ranch in western North Dakota, but he lamented that the relief didn’t come sooner.
“A little earlier here … it was getting pretty depressing. People were starting to panic and didn’t know what to do,” he said, calling this year “by far the worst” drought he has seen in his 43 years of ranching.
Many agree with Entze’s assessment that this year has been historically dry. The North Dakota Farmers Union earlier this month called the drought one of the worst the state has seen since the 1980s, while Tim Petry, a North Dakota State University extension livestock marketing economist, put it in the top five of the past 50 years.
“It’s right up there, particularly in far western North Dakota,” he said. “History is being made.”
The drought is also expected to have dire financial consequences. North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring predicted Friday it will have a $4 billion to $5 billion overall economic impact on the state.
Gov. Doug Burgum requested a presidential major disaster declaration “based upon a severe drought that has adversely impacted state agribusinesses and producers, residents and the overall economy” in early August. As of Friday afternoon, the governor’s office hadn’t heard whether the request would be fulfilled, a spokesman said.
Buying some time
Although conditions have eased up recently, as much as 45.6 percent of the state was in an extreme or exceptional drought in late July, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. As of Thursday, about 22.1 percent of the state fell into those two categories, the most intense on the monitor’s scale.
Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said the August precipitation helped reduce fire danger and slowed cattle marketing “that had been so rampant earlier in the season” while buying more time for people “to make some decisions.”
“It doesn’t mean that things go back to normal,” she said. “Even if the amount of rain is the same, the timing of it is so significant.”
The dry conditions have hampered crops and reduced feed for livestock. Entze said he would normally get 2,500 to 3,500 bales of hay off his land in a given year, but he only got 124 bales “or something like that” this year. He resorted to driving to the Carrington area to find hay.
Entze plans to send cattle elsewhere to find feed during the winter, something others in the area are doing as well. But that strategy can come with a hefty price tag that includes transportation costs.
“Unfortunately, there are no good management strategies in a drought. They’re all bad, it’s just which is the least worst,” Petry said. “You just have to do the best you can with what you have and make tough decisions.”
North Dakota’s 2017 spring wheat crop was projected to be 186 million bushels, down 31 percent from last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Aug. 10. The department predicted similar or worse declines for other crops, including a 19 percent drop in corn production.
In his Aug. 7 request for a disaster declaration, addressed to President Donald Trump through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Burgum warned of broader effects on the state through slowed sales on farm machinery and general retail items.
“This downturn in sales ultimately affects state sales tax collections and could compound already decreasing state revenues,” he said.
The drought has prompted some acts of charity from neighboring states. A convoy of semi-trucks carrying hay from around Fergus Falls, Minn., passed through the Bismarck area Aug. 26.
Justin Beyer of Beyer Towing, who helped organize the convoy of more than a dozen trucks, said North Dakotans have been grateful for the help.
“I’d like to think someday that if we do this and it’s dry around our area, maybe they’d come and help us out,” he said. “It’s hopefully getting back to the old ways of chipping in and helping each other out.”
North Dakota State University and the state Department of Agriculture also created a hay lottery for livestock producers. More than 1,100 applications came from North Dakota by Thursday’s deadline, Goehring said.
“They don’t even know if they’re going to be selected, but they’re elated that somebody remembered them,” he said.
The state and federal government have taken some steps to relieve the drought, including the USDA opening more conservation acres for emergency grazing and haying in July. The state Emergency Commission late last month approved $1.5 million for an emergency hay transportation program.
But Farmers Union President Mark Watne said in early August that a “financial disaster” is looming and called for federal disaster payments to livestock and crop producers affected by the drought. He warned that crop insurance will not be enough to deal with an event this severe.
“We’re going to bring up drought quite a bit with our congressional leaders and suggest that there needs to be something that’s in addition to the normal channels or we’re going to lose some farms and ranches,” Watne said Thursday.