Dry days of spring carry into summer
Flash drought causing problems for area farmers
SPRING GROVE, Minn. – Darin Bratland was 6 years old when the drought of 1976 hit his family’s farm. He was a teenager when an even bigger one made its mark in 1988.
“I do remember the talk about the centennial year being really dry, but the summer of 1988 between my junior and senior years of high school, I can remember how bad it was,” Bratland said. “Then we just baled hay; we didn’t make any baleage. Basically, we got a first crop of hay and that was about it.”
However, Bratland said he does not remember ever experiencing such a fast and early drought like the one that arrived this May.
“For this time of the year, nothing (in the past) has been even close,” Bratland said June 13. “This is by far the driest.”
Bratland and his brother Duron milk 110 cows near Spring Grove in southeastern Minnesota. They also farm 525 acres of corn, 320 acres of soybeans, 111 established hay ground acres and 60 acres of new direct-seeding alfalfa. They pasture milk cows, heifers and most youngstock.
“Pastures have really changed this week; they had been pretty good until the last week whereas they are not recovering now and turning around,” Bratland said. “As far as the crops, no-till soybeans, if we even have a 60% stand, that would be it. I don’t think the soybeans that aren’t coming are dead; they just haven’t germinated yet. I think if we’d get rain, they’d still come out of the ground.”
Minnesota assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay calls this spring’s sudden drought a flash drought.
“We’re getting used to these flash droughts now,” Boulay said. “We had a really sharp drought, a deep drought, in 2021 in the north (Minnesota). Then in 2022, we had a drought in southwestern Minnesota through the Twin Cities, so it shifted a bit, but it was still a pretty severe drought in both situations. The plus side of it is that, in both, we got completely bailed out.”
Boulay said it was like starting from scratch again in 2023 with the winter snow and early rains, but, in a flash, that changed.
“Now we’re getting dry again, and there’s no way to predict way out in advance what is going to happen,” Boulay said. “Who will get the rain? That’s the key, but it’s really hard to predict where it will fall.”
Near Albany, in the central part of Minnesota, DJ Hemmesch is seeing dry fields and pastures on his farm where he milks 68 cows and raises 38 head of beef cows.
“There’s a lot of mouths that have to get fed; we’re going to have to come up with all the silage,” Hemmesch said. “With the snowfall we had, the rain this early spring and not much frost in the ground, the moisture went down into the ground. The early corn that was planted looks really nice because the roots went down and are getting moisture, but the later corn was planted in dry ground and just didn’t germinate. I have not seen it this dry this early.”
Soybeans are struggling as well.
“We’ve got a lot of beans lying in dry ground yet not germinating,” Hemmesch said. “We had three- to four-tenths inches of rain May 9; after that, we’ve had just a few traces of rain, not much.”
Hemmesch said pastures are dry and meadows are short. He has begun adjusting feed.
“I just had to start feeding the beef cows; I take a bale of hay a day for them,” Hemmesch said. “With the earlier rain we got, (the pasture land) took off fairly good, but now it’s getting pretty skimpy, but the thistles still like to grow in the dry.”
The alfalfa, he said, is coming back, but he does not expect decent tonnage with the second cutting. Where he has newly seeded alfalfa, a lot of seed has not germinated yet.
“If it rains, it could still help a lot,” Hemmesch said.
Some areas of Minnesota have avoided the drought altogether.
“It’s a big state, and it varies quite a bit,” Boulay said. “There are still a few people in Brown County who say we’ve had enough or please turn it off because they had their fields flooded with the heavy rains last month. The people who are in the best shape are on either side of the Minnesota River, one or two counties on either side, because they had decent moisture this spring.”
Most of Minnesota, however, is far below normal for moisture.
“Once you get north of the Twin Cities, they didn’t get as much rain this spring, so they are farther behind,” Boulay said. “From basically far southeastern Minnesota, coming up through the Twin Cities and east central and much of central Minnesota, very little rain has fallen over the past month – less than an inch – so those are the areas that we’re most concerned about right now.”
Far southwestern Minnesota is part of a dry swath that goes up through the I-29 corridor of South Dakota, known for its higher concentration of dairy farms. Laura Edwards, state climatologist through the South Dakota State University Extension office, has been watching that area.
“Down in our southeastern area, we’ve seen expansion and increase in severity of drought,” Edwards said. “We’re keeping an eye on a lot of eastern South Dakota where we are approaching what I might call a tipping point toward more severe drought.”
Edwards said she has not heard of any stress on dairy herds since most farmers today have cooling protocols and systems in barns for such weather, but feed for dairy cattle is a concern.
“The hot temperatures have really accelerated (crop) impacts, and that mostly applies to the forage and feed situation,” Edwards said. “In that part of the state, we don’t see drought a lot. In 2021 and 2022, we saw some, but that was more of a slow, progressing, lingering drought. This one is progressing more rapidly.” Predictions for forage yields are looking less promising than most years.
“We’ve had first-cutting alfalfa already, and it was decent, but looking in the southeastern area (of South Dakota) in particular, signs are already pointing toward lower yields for the year in general because rainfall in May and June really count a lot toward our forage production,” Edwards said. “May and June are our wettest months of the year, and we are falling far behind normal pretty quickly here.”
Near Spring Grove, Bratland said he has seen some bright spots.
“We’ve had a few teasers over the last week where we got a 10-minute sprinkle or just barely a dust settler – .2 inches at the most – but it seems like the corn has reacted to that,” Bratland said. “That has actually perked up the corn a little this week. Surprisingly, for the most part, it looks pretty good, not quite knee high.”
Another bit of hope came June 15 when the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center updated its predictions for the period of June 23-29. North Dakota and South Dakota and most of Minnesota were given a 33% to 40% chance of having above-normal precipitation. Most of Iowa, northeastern and southeastern Minnesota and all of Wisconsin were predicted to be receiving near normal precipitation in that same timeframe. However, the whole Upper Midwest is predicted to receive above normal temperatures, so evaporation could be higher.
Meanwhile, Leo Schlangen, who has been dairy farming for 55 years near Richmond in central Minnesota, is taking a practical view.
“It’s very dry right now, but my dad always said, ‘If crops grow up dry, they get a good root system,’” Schlangen said. “Our crops came up so nice and aren’t hurting a whole lot yet. Our alfalfa is not so good, but I’m a person who’s always thankful for what I get. I don’t worry about what I don’t get.”