‘Flash drought’ threatens crops and cattle

Exceptionally dry conditions in the northern Great Plains are devastating farmers and ranchers.

  • Calves crowd a pen at a cattle auction in Mandan, North Dakota. Ranchers have been sending more calves than usual to market, and earlier in the summer, as they try to consolidate their herds and reduce feed costs and pasture stress during the drought hitting the Great Plains.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A bale of hay is strewn around a pen outside a cattle auction in Mandan, North Dakota.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Rancher Ross Glass works a cattle auction in Mandan, North Dakota. Glass sold about 150 calves from his own herd at the auction in an effort to consolidate his herd.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Rancher Doug Bichler poses for a portrait in front of a truckload of hay donated by Farm Rescue in Linton, North Dakota. Bichler received the hay from Farm Rescue after suffering dual misfortunes: His fields yielded fewer bales of hay this summer and he lost his right arm in a baler accident.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Rancher Doug Bichler, right, waits with his wife Maria and nephew to unload a truckload of hay donated by Farm Rescue in Linton, North Dakota. Although recent rains have fallen in North Dakota, the damage is mostly done, and the precipitation is too little and too late for most crops to improve before harvests. Bichler received the hay from Farm Rescue after his fields yielded about 500 fewer bales this summer than his animals need in a typical winter.

    Andrew Cullen
  • After a hot, dry summer, farmers in South Heart, North Dakota, say their yields are among the worst they've ever seen.

    Andrew Cullen
  • A strip of field that wasn't seeded stands out in farmer Bob Kuylen's wheat field in South Heart, North Dakota. After a hot and dry summer, wheat stalks across western North and South Dakota are only about knee-high, bearing small heads.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Farmer Bob Kuylen poses for a portrait in his wheat field in South Heart, North Dakota. He has been getting poor yields from his wheat this summer.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Looking for forage wherever they can, some ranchers have turned out their cattle onto recently harvested fields like this one in South Heart, North Dakota.

    Andrew Cullen
  • Summer heat and low precipitation have dried out ponds and cattle stock dams like this one near Livona, North Dakota.

    Andrew Cullen

 

As wildfires blaze across the West, parts of Montana and the Dakotas are experiencing one of the worst droughts in recent memory. With pastures so parched that they can’t support cattle, ranchers are accepting donations of hay from wetter parts of the country and selling their animals and considering taking second jobs to get by. Farmers are also struggling. Crop harvests are a fraction of normal — the estimated yield for durum wheat in North Dakota and Montana, for example, is about half what it was last year.

The current catastrophe began as a “flash drought,” a dry period that comes on very quickly. Late spring and early summer are typically pretty soggy in the northern Great Plains — but not this year, says Natalie Umphlett, regional climatologist and interim director of the High Plains Regional Climate Center at the University of Nebraska. If the region doesn’t get enough rain during that critical time, she says, “it’s hard to make that up.”

The drought is expected to persist across eastern Montana and the western side of the Dakotas through at least the end of October, according to the July 20 seasonal outlook produced by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. Even if the region does get more rain, it’s too late for some plants, says F. Adnan Akyüz, the North Dakota state climatologist and a professor at North Dakota State University. If certain crops don’t germinate or emerge early in the season, the impact is “irreversible,” Akyüz says. “Any additional precipitation is not going to fill the gaps.”

With this particular dry spell still unfolding, it’s too early to tell if it was caused by climate change, Umphlett says. But droughts like this one will likely become more common in the future. That’s in part because plants use more water when they’re heat stressed, Umphlett says, so rising temperatures mean the amount of rain that sufficed in the past may no longer be enough to satiate thirsty plants. — Emily Benson