Early Winter Storm Strikes Dakotas

Northern Plains Being Hit Hard By What Could Be Record-Breaking Winter Storm, Blizzard

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Freezing temperatures can cause changes in forage plants and certain management practices are needed to protect livestock. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Todd Boesen was busy operating a forage chopper at midweek, helping a neighbor with a custom job. The Kimball, South Dakota, farmer/rancher was about 20 miles from home chopping sorghum sudangrass on prevented planting acres.

"It's a little green yet, but with the winter weather predicted later this week they really wanted to get it chopped," Boesen told DTN.

Thus is life in the Dakotas in early October with a big winter storm bearing down on the region. These types of early October storms have a history of causing much havoc in the Northern Plains.


DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said the Northern Plains are seeing what could be a record-breaking winter storm. The storm began Thursday and will continue through early Sunday. On Friday morning, blizzard warnings were out for North Dakota.

"North Dakota is likely to have snowfall of 12 to 36 inches -- 1 to 3 feet -- in central and northern areas," Anderson said. "Snowfall will set new records. Northern South Dakota has 6 to 12 inches indicated. In addition, strong winds of up to 50-plus miles per hour will cause blizzard conditions in central and northern North Dakota."

Anderson said the state will also see freezing conditions with lows in the mid-to upper 20s Fahrenheit.


Boesen said he has heard much concern from cattle producers about this approaching storm being a disastrous replay of the 2013 winter storm. Many producers decided to move cattle to more protected locations this week, he said.

From Oct. 3-5, 2013, snowfall up to 58 inches combined with 50 to 70 mph winds hit the Black Hills region, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Rapid City.

The 2013 storm's biggest loss was livestock that perished in the blizzard, since cattle were still in summer pastures far from shelters and hadn't grown their thick winter coats, according to the NWS.

Boesen said the same type of situation is setting up at nearly the same time of year as the 2013 storm. He was on the rain/snow line then, and his region is again expected to be in that same area again with this storm.

"We don't need another one of those types of storm," Boesen said.


Heavy snow from this week's winter storm isn't the only challenge the Northern Plains is dealing with.

Anderson said this year South Dakota has had anywhere from 33 to 42 inches of precipitation, which is mostly 12 to 20 inches above normal. In percentage terms, this is 150% to 300% of normal.

"Most of the state has had similar outrageous percentages above normal," Anderson said.

Central and eastern North Dakota has also seen heavy precipitation this year. This region has seen mostly 24 to 30 inches since Jan. 1. These totals are 6 to 15 inches above normal -- 150% to 200% above normal.

As with South Dakota, most of North Dakota had these "outlandish" departures from normal except for the northeast corner of the state, Anderson said.

Boesen said his home area of south-central South Dakota has seen slightly more than average moisture this year. He estimated his region has seen about 23 inches. Normal is closer to 18 inches.


Because of the extra moisture, Boesen's crops flourished during the growing season. He tries to graze his cattle as much as he can during the entire year, and his forage, mostly grass, thrived in this environment.

"I have some blended crops and we graze cover crops and we were fortunate this year that we saw moisture, but not too much moisture," Boesen said.

However, you don't have to travel very far from his home area to see that higher-than-average precipitation had a negative impact on crops. About 20 miles to the east, many acres of prevented planting acres can be seen.

The good news for these producers with livestock is they were able to utilize prevented planting acres for various forages. Quite a bit of sorghum sudangrass were planted on these acres with some producers electing to chop the forage for silage while others baled the crop for hay, Boesen said.


Freezing causes changes in forage plants and certain management is needed to protect livestock. There are several different problems that could occur during fall grazing, according to recent press release from North Dakota State University Extension: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/….

Bloat can occur at any time cattle graze large quantities of highly digestible forage, but this concern increases after a killing frost. The risk is greatest in the first three to five days after a killing frost.

Producers can avoid bloat issues by ensuring cattle are full of dry hay before allowing them to graze and delaying turnout until pastures are dry after dew or rain. Monitoring animals every two hours after turnout is also important.

Grass tetany is a potentially fatal condition in beef cattle cause by a magnesium and calcium deficiency combined with high levels of potassium.

"Although most producers associate grass tetany with grazing immature cool-season grasses in the early spring, cattle can be affected by tetany when consuming lush fall regrowth in grass pastures or annual cereal forages," stated the release. "This situation is less common in North Dakota because the mineral profile of fall regrowth is not exactly like new spring growth; however, being aware of the possibility of a problem in the fall is important."


Other potential issues with forages after a freeze is toxins being released in cover crops and small grains. This includes prussic acid poisoning, nitrate toxicity and sulfur toxicity.

Prussic acid is a concern with sorghums and sudangrasses. Other similar plants, such as pearl and foxtail millet, do not have issues with toxins.

When plants freeze, changes occur in their metabolism and composition, which can poison livestock, according to this University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension report: https://beef.unl.edu/….

Sorghum-related plants can be highly toxic for a few days after a frost. Freezing breaks plant cell membranes, and this allows the chemicals that form prussic acid to mix together and release this poisonous compound rapidly.

Livestock eating recently frozen sorghums can get a sudden, high dose of the acid and potentially die. By waiting three to five days after a freeze before grazing sorghums, producers can avoid this issue.

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

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Russ Quinn