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April weather a ‘double-edged sword’ for North Dakota farmers/ranchers

Scherbenske Farms

After a three-day blizzard in mid-April, cattle at Scherbenske Farms in Lehr, N.D., enjoy some sunshine. Courtesy photo from Scherbenske Farms.

In early April, farmers in North Dakota, especially in the western region of the state, had their sights set on possibly getting in the fields early and getting a jump-start on planting season. But a series of mid-April snowstorms have proven to be a double-edged sword for the state’s farmers and ranchers.

Ranchers fought during the storms to shield their cattle as up to four feet of snow fell across parts of the region over a two-week stretch. Drifts piled high, and conditions became dangerous for cattle and newborn calves. They had their fill of sleepless nights dragging calves into barns and trying to manage livestock – doing their best to make sure the animals had shelter and protection.

On the other side of the coin, the areas of the state hit hardest by the recent storms were also the same areas hit hardest by drought since mid-summer of 2020, and the moisture was much needed. Having enough feed this past winter was a challenge for livestock producers across the state, and now there might be enough moisture for pasture growth this summer.

“One of my pragmatic livestock operators said to me, ‘You know, sometimes you’ve got to have a calf-killing storm to save the heard,’” said Doug Goehring, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner. “He was referring to the fact that (producers) need to grow grass and have their cricks, stockdams, and any reservoirs they water out of to be full. It’s tough and challenging.”

For crop producers, though the weather has delayed planting season for many, the moisture is much-needed.

“There were some farmers in western and southwestern North Dakota that (prior to the storms) actually got in the field and had been planting some small grains,” Goehring said on April 25. “This (weather) certainly has stopped that almost clear across the state. They’re happy about the moisture, but they are certainly concerned about when their next opportunity is going to come to plant because when they look at the forecast, about every five days now there’s predicted moisture.”

Goehring noted, it’s not real late yet, but this is certainly the time of year that farmers and ranchers are out putting seed in the ground and switching gears from small grains and thinking about putting row crops in.

“I’ve had people say they may start with some of their row crops first this year and then go back to their small grains. That, of course, depends on the small grains – wheat is a little more forgiving to put in later – but barley, oats, and peas, we like to have those in as early as possible,” he explained.

Though this series of storms was challenging for many, the precipitation has eased some water and forage concerns for livestock and has brought some renewed optimism to the 2022 growing season for farmers.

“Western North Dakota was in a far tougher condition in terms of soil moisture compared to the central and eastern part of the state,” Goehring said. “So those guys got hit twice, really hard. They’re not necessarily happy about that, but they also know they’ll be able to germinate some seed and grow a crop. They’re not sure what they’ll end up with, but they’re happy they’ll have something to start with.”

Though it was anticipated due to some excess moisture, the eastern half of the state experienced some flooding problems in late April, but Goehring doesn’t expect it to hinder farmers much this spring.

“Generally, most of the time when the water recedes from those flooded areas, farmers can quickly get back in the fields,” he said. “It surprises people how quickly those in eastern North Dakota are set up to get in the field and get a crop planted. The biggest issues will probably come in terms of infrastructure – when water has inundated some township roads. That will create some more problems and headaches for people personally and for their farming and ranching operations.”

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