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Published September 08 2012

Drought leaves crop production in Dakotas at different extremes

BISMARCK – Keith Deutsch and Chad Blindauer both work the land in the Dakotas, one in the north and one in the south, producing crops that help feed a hungry nation. Most years they deal with comparable weather and similar production problems, but this year is shaping up to be unlike most others.

North Dakota anticipates dramatic production increases in many crops as farmers rebound from last year’s flooding, while South Dakota expects precipitous production drops due to devastating drought. It’s an interesting contrast for two rural states whose economies rely heavily on agriculture.

Ben Handcock, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council, which gauges crop quality for the industry, said the difference in the two states this year was obvious.

“Not so much in the wheat, but everything else is better in North Dakota than it was in South Dakota,” Handcock said. “The corn and soybeans were much better up north.”

More than two-thirds of South Dakota is in one of the three worst stages of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The southeast, where Blindauer farms near Mitchell, is short up to 9.5 inches of rain, although amounts vary by location.

He expects yields, or bushels per acre, on his farm to be less than half the norm for both corn and soybeans. He also said he thought the state’s overall production might be less than the U.S. Department of Agriculture has predicted.

“There’s quite a bit of corn (in the region) that has gotten cut for silage” because of poor quality, he said. “I think that’s going to be the one surprising thing when it’s all said and done ... USDA probably underestimated how many acres were cut for silage.”

The USDA last month projected a 7 percent increase in acres of corn harvested compared to last year. Taking drought damage into account, the agency predicted the state would produce 15 percent less corn than its average over the previous five years.

The South Dakota soybean crop is to be about 9 percent below the average over the previous five years, despite a similar increase in acres.

“The soybeans, they look pretty tough,” Blindauer said. “This last week, with extremely high temperatures and strong winds, really hurt the beans.”

On Aug. 29, temperatures soared above 100 degrees in much of South Dakota. The capital of Pierre, in the central part of the state, topped out at 110 degrees that day.

North Dakota has seen somewhat milder temperatures and more rain this summer. About one-fifth of the state is in a drought, but none is in the worst two stages. Northwest North Dakota, where Deutsch farms, is short about one-third of an inch to 1.5 inches of rain.

It’s a big change from last year, when a record number of acres – about 5.5 million – went unplanted due to excessive snowmelt, heavy rains and overflowing rivers. That severely cut into crop production, which is evidenced by eye-popping increases in this year’s estimates.

Production of spring wheat, the state’s staple crop, is expected to be 37 percent higher than last year, according to USDA’s August estimates. Production of durum wheat, which is used for pasta, is expected to be up 152 percent. If those estimates hold, the wheat crops will rebound to within 6 percent of their average sizes in the five years prior to the flooding.

Much of the state’s durum wheat is grown in northern areas that were hit hardest by flooding last year. Deutsch, who farms near Plaza, got only about half of his typical 3,000 durum acres planted last year, and it yielded fewer than 20 bushels per acre. This year, he expects about 35 bushels per acre.

“It’s a lot better year compared to last year,” Deutsch said. “A lot of guys probably lived off crop insurance last year.”

North Dakota leads the nation in the production of spring and durum wheat, accounting for more than one-third of both crops. Increased production could be a factor in lower market prices this year, though increased imports of Canadian wheat also had influence, said Darin Newsom and Mary Kennedy, analysts at the Omaha, Neb.-based market information company DTN.

South Dakota is sixth in corn production and eighth in soybean production. Its drop in production is not likely to influence markets, the analysts said, though with leading corn and soybean producing states also in drought, “it doesn’t help the situation either.”