Drought conditions are likely for a good chunk of the Northern Plains this spring because this winter was relatively dry, and farmers gearing up for spring planting are keeping an eye on the sky.
Seventy-five percent of North Dakota and 82 percent of South Dakota are already experiencing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, which was released Thursday. Those are the two least severe categories it uses.
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The easternmost quarter of North Dakota and northeastern South Dakota are in moderate drought, and the drought is expected to worsen through June, according to the latest seasonal drought outlook released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. Drought also is expected to develop in much of the rest of the eastern half of the Dakotas.
That's especially worrisome for farmers in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota, which is one of the nation's prime growing areas for sugar beets and potatoes.
Cropland there froze last fall with plentiful moisture, but "we'll still need some showers in April to get the crops going," said Don Suda, who has farmed near Grafton for a quarter century and serves as chairman of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.
Suda said last year at this time there was 2 feet of snow on the ground instead of bare soil, and overly wet conditions delayed spring planting. There is little chance of flooding in the region this year due to dry soils and a low winter snowpack, according to the most recent flood outlook from the National Weather Service.
"We're a little excited this year ... excited to get the crop in on time," Suda said. "Then again, the moisture situation is going to be a concern. If it doesn't rain in the next month, it will be really concerning."
The April climate forecast, which is factored into the seasonal drought outlook, suggests lower-than-average precipitation, according to Laura Edwards, climate field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension Service.
"This is not helpful for reducing our current drought area, as ideally near-average to above-average precipitation would provide some relief," she said.
Drought effects already are being noted in the region, including drier-than-average soil moisture and reductions in surface water supplies, especially in stock ponds for cattle because of limited snowfall and spring runoff, South Dakota State Climatologist Dennis Todey said. About one-fifth of the stock water supplies in South Dakota are rated "short," according to the most recent report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Some counties in the Dakotas already have put burn bans in place to reduce the risk of wildfires amid the dry conditions. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department also is prohibiting open burning including campfires this spring on the 25-square-mile Oahe Wildlife Management Area along the Missouri River south of Bismarck-Mandan.
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