More rain needed to break drought

2013-05-20T05:30:00Z 2014-09-08T14:07:00Z More rain needed to break droughtAndrea J. Cook Journal staff Rapid City Journal
May 20, 2013 5:30 am  • 

Even with rain in the forecast and green grass everywhere, there are no assurances that the drought is behind us.

Looks can be deceiving, said Mitch Faulkner, a rangeland management specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service at Belle Fourche.

All of the green grasses covering the prairie and the forest is still recovering from last year's drought. A lot more rain is needed to help the soil and foliage recover, Faulker said.

"We had a decent green-up, mostly because of the April snow," Faulkner said while he inspected range in Custer County.

Thanks to the spring snows and several rains, Custer County ranchers are fairing better their neighbors to the north. Butte County needs almost 12 inches of rain through the end of June to give grasses a chance at growing normally.

Ranchers in Butte County are watching their pastures closely. Many sold cows last fall and some are already making plans to liquidate more of their herds, Faulkner said.

"We'll have less than normal grass, unless we really start to get a lot of rain," Faulkner said. As of Friday, rainfall had remained sporadic across the region.

Almost 600 mother cows and their calves sold at the Philip Livestock Auction last Tuesday. Several hundred cow/calf pairs are expected for Tuesday's sale.

In northeastern Meade County, at the heart of a region of extreme drought, several hundred pairs were consigned to sell this week at Faith Livestock Auction. Consignments were strong at sale barns at St. Onge and Belle Fourche.

"People have been moving cows," Faulkner said.

Ranchers know that rain received in May and June will set the stage for the summer. The rain that falls in weeks to come will determine how much grass they can expect their pastures to produce this year, Faulkner said.

"The next group of decisions (on selling cattle), will come when we get into June a little bit and know what conditions are," Faulkner said.

The 2012 drought had a major impact on South Dakota's grasslands and farming operations.

Grasslands in many parts of the state are already experiencing drought this year, according to NRCS data. With the exception of northeastern South Dakota, most of the state is still in some form of drought.

Ranchers in Butte, Meade and other counties are also plagued by a shortage of surface water for livestock. Soils were so dry this spring they soaked up melting snow like a sponge.

"Most everything went into the soil," Faulkner said. Rain is needed to regenerate the soil and run water to fill the stock dams, he said.

Grasslands are not the only areas suffering from drought, according to John Niehaus of the Rapid City Fire Department.

Many of Rapid City's neighborhoods connect with the Black Hills National Forest or grasslands, so the threat of a wildfire is a constant concern, Niehaus said.

Homeowners need to understand that a few brief showers are not drought breakers, he said.

Spring is also the time when homeowners need to look at their property to make sure their homes are surrounded by a "survivable space" to protect them from wildfire, Niehaus said.

"Even though the grass is green, the dead grass is laid over and the new grass is growing though it," Niehaus said. That dry grass will ignite and burn.

After a rain, it doesn't take long for the grass and pine needles to dry out when the humidity is low and temperatures are warm. Grass can go from damp to fuel in one hour, Niehaus said.

Garden compost or piles of grass clippings can also create a hazard if they are not turned and kept moist, he said.

Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or

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