'We’re to the point where anything helps': Drought hits farmers, ranchers hard

Dry, hot conditions are also fueling wildfires in the BWCA.

drought stressed corn plants in a field
Corn plant leaves roll up in response to drought and heat as the plant tries to conserve moisture. Photo taken June 22, 2021 near Frazee, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News File

Rachel Gray and her family raise beef cattle on their farm in Blackduck, in Beltrami County, in far north central Minnesota. 

Right now she says they're grazing about 500 heifers, along with 17 bulls. But she said that's not going to last much longer. 

"We are currently running out of pasture even though we've been very careful to manage those areas,” said Gray. “It is like nothing we have seen up here."

She said typically her land is wet, and grass is plentiful. But this year she said it's so dry the grass just isn't growing. She's predicting she'll only be able to grow about a third of the hay they normally do to feed their livestock. She said that's forced her to reduce her herd. 

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"Right now we are pulling cattle and shipping early,” said Gray. “We're not supposed to be shipping cattle until October. We don't have the feed or the pasture to feed these cattle up here right now."

Gray said other ranchers she knows are weaning their calves a month or two early, and selling them. Others are selling cow and calf pairs, something she said hardly ever happens in her region.

 "The problem with that is it is changing our operations, not only for today, tomorrow, next week, it's changing our operations for the next years, people are losing genetics that they worked hard to get for a lifetime," said Gray.

Some ranchers are also mulling their futures, Gray said. They wonder if they should try to get work in town? Or should they try to build back their herd for next year?

"So these are some major decisions that farmers and ranchers up here are having to try to deal with,” said Gray. “Not only just getting your cattle fed, and watered and getting through the day, but then how do you continue on? What is your next step as far as your livelihood, your farm and your business?"

In response to the worsening conditions facing ranchers, Gov. Tim Walz has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow for emergency haying and grazing on some land in counties hit especially hard by the drought that’s typically set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program.

A map showing areas of drought
A map showing areas of severe drought in Minnesota as of July 13.
Courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor

Allison VanDerWal, Executive Director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, said making that land available to ranchers more quickly could make a big difference.

“We’re to the point where anything helps,” VanDerWal said.

VanDerWal’s family runs a cattle feedlot operation in southwestern Minnesota. She said her ranch received over an inch of rain Sunday, which she could see when she went for a walk with her mom and great-grandmother.

“We were looking at the mud, and we were joking about the mud on my great grandma’s wheelchair. And we didn’t mind cleaning that off. We usually aren’t a very big fan of mud, but a little bit of mud this year we are not complaining about,” VanDerWal said.

Rainfall around the state has been variable. Much of Beltrami County in northern Minnesota, where Gray ranches, is now classified as D3 — being in extreme drought. Most of western Minnesota is listed the next level down, as severe drought. Almost all of the eastern half of the state is considered to be in moderate drought — still dry, but not as dry as the western part of the state.

Dave Nicolai, a University of Minnesota Extension crop educator, calls it a “tale of two halves of Minnesota.” 

"It's just been hit and miss. And so really what we're concerned about is the lack of a consistent statewide or area wide or for that matter, even countywide rainfall patterns,” said Nicolai. “So it's boom or bust in terms of whether or not you've got that rain, and some places in Eastern Minnesota typically have fared quite a bit better."

Nicolai said this is an especially critical time for the state's corn crop, because the next few weeks is when the corn will pollinate. 

"And if we are drought stressed in a lot of the corn crop in Minnesota, it will affect the yield because we won't get the proper kernel set," he said.

And lower yields mean less money for farmers when they sell their crops at harvest.  

Luigi Romolo, the Minnesota state climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said since March, rainfall across most of the state is 5 to 8 inches below normal. Still, he said this isn't the most severe drought in recent years. He said it was actually drier in 2013 and 2007. 

But Romolo said this year, like a similar drought in 1988, intensified right in the middle of the growing season.

Romolo said the hot weather has made the drought even worse. And there are more sky-high temperatures in the forecast next week

"So when there's a lack of rainfall, drought sets in and then if the temperatures are above normal … that should drive to intensify things further," he said.

Still, Romolo stresses that it's not time to panic yet. He said droughts are enigmatic, and really hard to predict how long they will last. 

"Every time a drought flares up, you never know if this is going to be the worst drought ever.  And it could be, or it could be over in a month,” he said. “So no time to panic yet." 

Of course that's a hard message for ranchers struggling to feed their livestock, or firefighters battling a 65 acre wildfire burning near Ely in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

Gov. Walz said Thursday that while the coronavirus pandemic may be winding down, an extended drought looks to be in store for Minnesota for the foreseeable future.

"The pandemic might be winding down, but now this one is coming,” said Walz. “[It] looks like an extended period of drought for the remainder of the summer, and that will impact some of the decisions that we need to make."