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Drought Slows Forage Growth in Northern Plains

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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North Dakota producers have turned to corn, oats, wheat, barley and canola for forage, either haying or grazing these crops. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Andy Weisser has seen rain on his Roscoe, South Dakota, farm/ranch in recent weeks, but before that, very little rain fell in 2017. While the moisture will help some spring-planted crops, the rains came too late for most forages in the Northern Plains.

"We have improved tremendously since we have had roughly 4 inches of rain July 18-22 that brought our total rainfall to 10 inches for the year," Weisser told DTN Aug. 2. "Hay tonnage is 50% what is should be, but I'm not too concerned because corn has grown tall enough for silage."

The severe drought gripping the Northern Plains has limited forage production in some locations. Other parts of the region have had fewer issues with limited rains, but have faced their own weather issues.


In the eastern part of the Dakotas, forage crops are not in bad shape with some moisture. However, in the central and western parts of the Dakotas, the crop suffered because of the dry conditions.

Marisol Berti, forage specialist with North Dakota State University (NDSU) located in Fargo, said the condition of the forage crop varies greatly across the state. While the west and central regions of North Dakota have seen very little rain, too much rain fell earlier in the growing season in the northeast part of North Dakota.

"I had producers have crop losses because of too much moisture in northeastern North Dakota this growing season," Berti said.

However, forage production is nearly non-existent in the areas affected by the severe drought, she added.

Native range grasses have gone into dormancy with the lack of rain. Other forage crops, such as alfalfa, have had limited production. Some areas have not had even one cutting this growing season, she said.

Across the border in South Dakota, the same situation is present. Forages east of the Missouri River are in much better condition than west of the river, according to Karla Hernandez, South Dakota State University Extension forage specialist located in Watertown.

Most producers are wrapping up the second cutting of alfalfa in the eastern half of South Dakota, Hernandez said. A few weeks back, a hailstorm damaged some alfalfa fields, which should cut into their yield.

"Overall, forages are doing well in South Dakota despite the dry condition," Hernandez said. "East River is completely different to West River where they see more challenges than us in the northeast corner of the state."

Hernandez said forage producers should plan a forage package with options in case drought is present. This plan could include annual forages, combined with cover crops.

Annual forages, such as sorghum and teff grass, seem to be a good fit through dry conditions, she said. Annual forages seem to be "a hot topic" for producers as they face a shortage in feed sources.

Berti said those in need of forages could plant a cool and warm season mixture up to Aug. 15 in North Dakota. After that date, just cool season forages can be planted.

"You could get up to 2 tons per acre by the end of October, but it will have to rain, and we haven't seen much of that this year in some locations," Berti said.


Another option for producers in need of forages would be to utilize other crops for feedstuffs. Berti said North Dakota producers have turned to corn, oats, wheat, barley and canola crops for forage, either haying or grazing these crops.

Hernandez said the issue with using these crops is some have toxicity concerns. Forage producers should test all crops, such as for nitrate toxicity in corn and oats, or prussic acid in sorghum sudangrass.

"If concerned, do not put animals to graze under these conditions," Hernandez said. "SDSU Extension provides service to test forages for nitrate toxicity in all eight regional centers and if you have questions, test first, and make sure there is not a problem."

Todd Boesen, a Kimball, South Dakota, farmer, said there is definitely concern about high nitrates in much of the possible forage from wheat, oats and corn that could be grazed or cut for silage.

Farther north of his south-central South Dakota location, the corn is barely waist high and has no ears. In his immediate area and south, the corn has ears and he estimates that some of this corn could produce grain, but most likely most of it will be for silage, he said.

"Hay production is down by 70% and even worse in some locations," Boesen said. "I have a few neighbors that didn't even get a first cutting of alfalfa."

Weisser said the recent rains led everything to be green like it was in May, but the grass is brown 50 miles south of him. Most producers in his home area of north-central South Dakota decided to harvest their wheat for grain, but most of the Conservation Reserve Program acres have been baled for hay.

Quite a bit of hay is already been trucked to the region, but Weisser said if he runs short on feed, he will sell some of his cattle versus buying forage. With the recent rains, he is going to cut his alfalfa acres for the first time this growing season, he said.

"We have been building a surplus of hay over the years, which is going to help get us through this year," Weisser said. "Guys are cutting anything they can get access to, including cattail areas in July that normally are never dry."


The North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA) and NDSU North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station have set up a location near the NDSU campus in Fargo to accept hay donations, which will then be offered to eligible producers in a hay lottery, according to an Aug. 1 NDDA press release.

"We have been contacted by a Michigan organization called Ag Community Relief which, along with other groups, is organizing a large-scale hay donation convoy to North Dakota in mid-August for the hay lottery," Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. "We are so grateful to our friends in Michigan for everything they are doing for our producers."

Any other individuals or organizations willing to donate hay or trucking for the hay lottery should call NDDA's Drought Hotline at (701) 425-8454 to get information about delivery to the NDSU site. Livestock producers interested in applying for the hay lottery should go to NDDA's website at www.nd.gov/ndda/north-dakota-hay-lottery to fill out and submit an application.

Eligible producers must be from a drought D2, D3 or D4 county and own at least 25 animal unit equivalents of dairy cattle, beef cattle or sheep. A description of animal unit equivalents may be found directly on the application. The application deadline is Aug. 31, 2017.

The hay will be distributed in semi-load lots with the first drawing in early September. If additional donations are taken in after that date, more drawings will occur.

Drawings will occur in two age categories: ages 35 and under, and ages 36 and above. Producers that are selected will be responsible for arranging hay transportation from the NDSU site.

Questions about filling out the hay lottery application may be directed to (701) 328-4764.

In addition, NDSU has also a website www.ag.ndsu.edu/feedlist designed to help buyers and sellers who have or need feedstuffs. The site also may be used to donate or receive donations. There is no charge to post entries.

Additional resources include Farm Rescue (www.farmrescue.org) and North Dakota Farm Bureau Foundation (www.ndfb.org/news/foundation-provides-drought-relief-effort/).

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

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN


Russ Quinn