Drought continues to scorch local community

John B. Crane
Devils Lake Journal

DEVILS LAKE - Even the occasional thunderstorm has not quenched the general conditions plaguing a slew of the surrounding counties in central North Dakota. 

Of course, droughts are nothing new to the region, nor are they alien. The current drought, however, has left a sight for sore eyes. Even the counting numbers could explain as such. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Ramsey's 0.83'' inches of precipitation during the 2021 month of July was the third driest July month dating back to 1895 and the driest July dating back to 1985 (0.33''). 

Drought can be stressful for farmers and ranchers.

But it has not been just July. Over the past 12 months (August 2020-July 2021), Ramsey County, according to NOAA, collected only 9.14'' of precipitation, the driest-ever 12-month stretch within the same timeframe.  

Scott Knoke's experience as an extension agent for Benson County has been far-reaching. With his 29th anniversary in the position swiftly approaching (Aug. 17), Knoke has worked anything and everything. From delving in horticulture, fielding questions about cropping systems, scouting for Integrated Pest Management at North Dakota State University to even handling the occasional mouse or snake, Knoke has done it all. 

The same goes for navigating around a drought or two. However, in Knoke's mind, the current drought has been a different challenge compared to others. 

"I guess we call them droughts, but now we really know what a drought is this year," Knoke said. "We started out the growing season with next to nothing in our soil profile, which just compounds if the crop doesn't have a lot to go on and get by with. In other drought years, we at least had some subsoil moisture. I guess in some places there must have been a little bit…for the most part, we have not had an appreciable rain since last July."

This Ward County Pasture Is In North Dakotas D4 Exceptional Drought Area.

Although his official job title covers Benson County, Knoke currently lives five miles east of Devils Lake. Knoke has seen similar problems related to the county next door. 

To Knoke, a particular culprit toward the lasting drought effects has been that of soil cover, or the lack thereof. Soil cover, created from the residue of the prior year's crop in the form of small grains and crop stubble, helps create a stand in keeping the soil from moving too excessively. However, without adequate moisture, high winds can uproot the soil for good. 

"You heard of the 'Dirty Thirties,' well, it has been 'Dirty 2021' at times with some real soil movement," Knoke said. 

Crop yield has not been the sole victim to the drought's onslaught. According to the Economic Outlook quarterly report, North Dakota's economy showed signs of "stagnation" and "slowing" economic recovery. 

The same goes for livestock, a further victim to the current drought. 

Jim Ziegler, an operator at Lake Region Livestock, took an opportunity at the business 30+ years ago and has not looked back. Not only has Ziegler worked with cattle over the period but has also worked with generations of families in the livestock trade. 

In Ziegler's experience, droughts have not only affected the livestock side of the coin, but also the family part of the business, too. From extensive conversations with many a family operation, Ziegler knows all too well what an extensive drought can do. 

"It limits the rancher's ability to have pasture, to procure feed and to procure winter feed for their operation, no matter what it is," Ziegler said. "The first number one difficulty is to procure feed, and as the grain market goes up, so does the feed and price where they can afford to operate."

While eliminating the lower quality might work for a time, both Knoke and Ziegler have recognized that, as the drought continues, tougher decisions will have to be made as summer begins to transition into fall.

"We are quite resilient, and folks do what they can to hang on and try to minimize the effects of the lack of moisture, but in the end, there is only so much you can do," Knoke said. "Strive to farm, get a crop, and keep livestock on the farm, and that has been a real challenge with the lack of forage and declining levels of water, whether it be dugouts, ponds, lakes or sloughs, that folks traditionally have livestock drink out of. That has created some real challenge, and unfortunately, many of our cattlemen and ranchers have had to liquidate a portion of their herd just because they do not have the feed for it and cannot afford to buy it." 

"At the beginning of this in the early season, the general feeling of the public was if we could figure out how to get through the summer, by fall it would be all right," Ziegler said. "A lot of people do whatever it takes to get through. They haul water, they feed through the summer, everybody does what they need to, and now, we have come to fall, we are knocking on the door. It is not all right. Mother Nature did not give them what it takes to alleviate the pressure. So now, what is the next step? Do you market calves and keep the cows? Do you market cows and keep the calves? Do you market everything and try to make a new call out of it? It is an unanswered question, and it is different on every operation."

Although recent squalls have given the land a brief breather, effects from the recurring drought will still be felt in the coming months. 

Even though the situation might be severe, the communities will have to remain resilient. 

"It is going to last," Knoke said. "Hopefully folks can weather the storm and be able to hang on to some of what they work for…and find a way to get through until we have greener pastures, so to speak."