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A mega-drought is hammering the U.S. In North Dakota, it's worse than the Dust Bowl

Oct 6, 2021
Originally published on October 7, 2021 11:12 am

Joey and Scott Bailey are sitting in their kitchen trying to figure out how they'll get through these next few months.

"Just your grass hay that we would spend $30 a bale on, people are spending $150 a bale, and they're driving 250 miles to get it," Scott says.

The Baileys own a ranch on the remote prairie about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, in the heart of what locals boast is the capital of North Dakota cattle country, McHenry County. The county is also one of the most drought-plagued places in the nation, where comparisons are now being drawn to the Dust Bowl.

Ranchers here have been forced to sell off their herds at historic rates and are now worried they won't have enough feed to keep their remaining cows alive this winter. The Baileys sold 20 cows a few months back, because they couldn't afford to keep them fed. It's been so dry that they couldn't grow much of their own hay.

"We didn't have any rain last fall, and we had a super warm winter," Joey says. "When we don't get snow in North Dakota, that hurts us a lot in the spring 'cause we need the snow to make it grow right away in the spring."

Scott and Joey Bailey worry the historic drought will make it even harder for young farmers and ranchers to stay in the business.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

The historic drought has put a serious strain on forage, which are the plants animals graze on. So that means hay and feed are at a premium.

"You're fighting with your neighbor, your friend, the guy down the road 'cause there's only so much feed out there," Scott says. "It's extremely stressful."

Why you can't 'doomsday it'

Just like in every other bad drought cycle though — the Dust Bowl, 1988 — ranchers here are trying as much as they can to look at this crisis philosophically.

A few miles east along US Highway 2, on his family's farm outside Towner, James Green says you just have to keep going; adapt and survive.

Drought is a fact of life here, and it always comes in punishing cycles.

"Honestly, I'm gonna plan for next spring to be like a normal spring," Green says. "If you doomsday it, you're just gonna be doomsdaying the rest of your life."

Green is adapting by making hay bales out of failed crops ruined by drought. For now, he figures the plan makes more sense than that drive of 250 miles or more for expensive hay. But it also requires extensive testing for nitrates to ensure the feed isn't contaminated from fertilizers left over from farming.

As he drilled into a large bale to retrieve some samples to send to a lab, Green stood in a field of mostly brown stubble, an endless blue sky with puffy white clouds above him.

"I've never seen a June or July as hot as we had it, literally these plants would get four to five inches tall, and they'd burn off," he said.

A closer look revealed some little shoots of green grass poking through though. It did rain some here last month. "Life saving rains," locals called them. They weren't drought busters, but it was enough to make Green's 72-year-old mom, Gwen, smile.

"If we can get a month of grazing here [now] that's a godsend," she says.

The recent rains were a "godsend" for Gwen Green and her son James, who say they may buy a month of grazing on their family's ranch and prevent them from downsizing their herd.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

It's also been a godsend having Gwen Green's sons around to keep the farm going. Her husband passed away last year. She says they're doing what they've always done, getting creative, finding that unconventional feed. She also got some grant money to buy new, more efficient watering systems, and they're exploring other mitigation measures.

But this drought also feels different.

"This is much worse than anything I've been through in 44 years out here," Gwen says. "James asked me one day, 'What would dad do?' I said, 'Dad hasn't seen anything this worse either.' "

You have to keep on doing what you're doing, they say, otherwise you'll get depressed and you won't make it.

North Dakota is an epicenter of the climate crisis

Still, the long term outlook for agriculture in North Dakota is a difficult one, according to climate scientists.

The state, infamous for its brutal winters, is already a place of extremes. State climatologist Adnan Akyuz, a professor at North Dakota State University, says the effects of climate change could be even more pronounced here compared to other states that are closer to the oceans. Along Highway 2, there is a roadside marker denoting the geographical center of North America.

North Dakota is nearly two and a half degrees warmer than it was a century ago, and the erratic swings in weather are becoming more frequent.

"I would say it is the epicenter," Akyus says. "With a 2.4 degree Fahrenheit per century rise it is one of the highest in the nation."

North Dakota is at the center of the North American continent, which climate scientists say will make it more vulnerable to extremes in a warmer world.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Akyuz points out that just back in 2019, the state experienced its wettest year on record, only to be followed by 2021's historic drought and heat waves.

Yet, climate change doesn't come up that much in North Dakota's ag community, where producers point to the weather having always fluctuated in dramatic cycles. If you're a farmer or rancher, it may also be hard to think about coping or planning for a future of even more extremes when you're just trying to figure out how to stay in business the next few months.

The community skews older, too. The average age of a producer in North Dakota is 56.

"Ranchers and farmers are innovative in themselves, but they're not looking 20 years out because they'll be 70, they're thinking about transition planning," says Rachel Wald, an agriculture extension specialist with North Dakota State University in McHenry County.

The recent rains did lift some spirits, Wald says, even though the forecast is showing little signs of a reprieve through winter.

"If you know any rancher or farmer, staying on the optimistic side is going to help out," she says, "because having a down outlook on everything, it's hard on you after awhile."

Even if this does turn out to be just another bad drought cycle, it will take ranchers years to recover. Selling off even just a few cows is a huge deal when you've spent years — and in some cases, decades — carefully building up quality genetics in your herd.

"Just imagine if you had a job for 20 years and now you had to go to another job and your benefit package ain't as attractive, your pay scale ain't as good," says Darryl Lies, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

Lies says even if ranchers last through this winter and start buying cows back, there's no guarantee they'll get the same quality they had and they may end up having to pay a lot more depending on the market.

Money is being drained from the prairie

Sale volumes have doubled at the Lake Region Livestock auction amid the historic drought.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

Ranchers have already sold off close to 25% more cattle than last year, according to figures from the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.

Drive across the state, and it's an all too familiar scene of trailers lined up outside auction barns, anxious cows mooing as they're unloaded into pens.

One auction barn in Rugby, North Dakota, reported a tenfold increase in sales this past summer. In Devil's Lake, the Lake Region Livestock barn has seen roughly double the volume at its weekly sales.

One recent morning, men clutching whips herded a drove of black Anguses into a chute, opening a huge metal door. The cattle, white tags clipped to their ears, were then funneled into a fenced pen with a sawdust floor. The auctioneer shouted out prices to a small crowd of bidders in the bleachers.

It is a short term boon for sale barns, but no one is celebrating.

In the back office, Lake View's owner, Jim Ziegler, sighs as he swats flies off a desk cluttered with paper and receipts. He worries many of his older customers won't be back next year.

Jim Ziegler, owner of Lake View Livestock in Devil's Lake, worries many of his older customers won't be back next year.
Kirk Siegler / NPR

"The cost is just prohibitive. The guys are talking about hay costing a hundred dollars a bale," Ziegler says. "That isn't something you do if you have a large cow herd."

Ziegler opened this barn in 1988, the last truly comparable drought year. In those days, ranches tended to be smaller, he says, and people could figure a way through. Now, it just costs too much to keep a big operation going.

"People just did not get in a position where they felt comfortable going into winter," Ziegler says. "There's gonna be more and more of that. There's gonna be more decisions that have to be made here as we go through the next thirty days."

Indeed, make or break decisions, with the prospect of yet another dry winter looming.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A megadrought is hammering almost half of the U.S. One of the hardest-hit states is North Dakota, where the crisis is drawing comparisons to the Dust Bowl. Ranchers there are being forced to sell off their herds at historic rates, and they're worried they won't have enough feed to keep their remaining cows alive this winter. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Towner, N.D., proudly boasts it's the capital of the state's cattle country. Joey and Scott Bailey own a slice of it, a remote ranch about 60 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE UNLOCKING AND OPENING)

SCOTT BAILEY: Come on, girl.

SIEGLER: After feeding, sitting in their kitchen, they're trying to figure out how they'll get through these next few months.

S BAILEY: Any of your prairie hay, just your grass hay that we would spend $30 a bail, people are spending $150 a bail, and they're driving 250 miles to get it.

SIEGLER: The couple sold 20 cows a few months back because they couldn't afford to keep them fed. It's been so dry, they could barely make any hay.

JOEY BAILEY: We didn't have any rain last fall, and we had hardly any snow. And we had a super-warm winter, which, yeah, we were excited about. But when we don't get snow in North Dakota, that hurts us a lot in the spring because we need the snow to make it grow right away in the spring.

SIEGLER: So they may have to downsize even more just to stay afloat through winter. The historic drought has put a serious strain on forage, meaning hay and feed are at a premium.

S BAILEY: So you're fighting with your neighbor, your friend, the guy down the road, you know, because there's only so much feed out there. It's extremely stressful.

SIEGLER: Scott is in his early 40s, Joey in her late 30s. It's hard enough to get young people to stay in agriculture, even in normal times. And they worry this drought will cause even more of their neighbors to have to take on 8-5 jobs in town or just get out of the business altogether. You can tell Scott particularly feels this pressure. His great-grandfather first settled the family out here.

S BAILEY: They made it, and them were a lot tougher times because if they wouldn't have made it, we wouldn't have had a family farm to be around, or I wouldn't be a fifth-generation rancher.

SIEGLER: Just like in every other bad drought cycle - the Dust Bowl, 1988 - ranchers here are trying to look at this crisis philosophically. A few miles east along highway 2 on his family's farm, James Green says you just have to keep going, adapt and survive. There have always been cycles of punishing drought.

JAMES GREEN: Honestly, I'm going to plan for next spring to be like a normal spring because if you doomsday it, you're just going to be doomsdaying (ph) the rest of your life.

SIEGLER: Green is adapting by making hay bales out of failed crops rather than drive the 250 miles for expensive hay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)

SIEGLER: He drills into a bale to get samples to test for nitrates. He wants to make sure there aren't any harmful contaminants from farm fertilizers.

GREEN: You just don't want to turn your cows out here and get them sick. And you want to know what they're eating.

SIEGLER: An endless blue sky with big, puffy white clouds above him, Green is standing in a field of mostly brown stubble.

GREEN: I've never seen a June or July as hot as we had it. And it just - literally, these plants would get, you know, four or five inches tall, and they'd burn off.

SIEGLER: Look closer, though, and there are little shoots of green grass popping up. It did finally rain some - not a drought-buster but life-saving rains, at least enough to make James' 72-year-old mom Gwen, who's standing behind him, smile in relief.

GWEN GREEN: If we can get a month of grazing here, that's a godsend.

SIEGLER: It's also been a godsend having her sons around to keep the farm going. Her husband passed away last year. She says they're doing what they've always done - getting creative, finding unconventional feed. She also got some grant money to buy new, more efficient watering systems. But this drought also feels different.

GWEN GREEN: This is much worse than anything I've been through in 44 years out here. James asked me one day, what would Dad do? I said, Dad hasn't seen anything this worse either, so we just have to do what we're doing.

SIEGLER: Keep doing what they're doing. If you get depressed, they say, you're not going to make it. Still, the long-term outlook from climate scientists isn't good. North Dakota is already a place of extremes. State climatologist Adnan Akyuz says the effects of climate change may be even worse here than other states that are closer to the oceans.

ADNAN AKYUZ: I would say it is the epicenter. With the 2.4 degree Fahrenheit per century, it is one of the highest in the nation.

SIEGLER: North Dakota is nearly 2.5 degrees warmer than it was a century ago. Akyuz says, just back in 2019, North Dakota had one of its wettest years on record, only to be followed by 2021's historic drought and heat waves. This September 30, the capital, Bismarck, hit 98 degrees.

AKYUZ: North Dakota has the geographical center of North America and makes it very prone to these climatic shifts.

SIEGLER: Climate change doesn't seem to come up much when you talk to ranchers. But maybe when you're just trying to figure out how to last the next few months, it's hard to think about planning for a future of more extremes. Even if this does turn out to be just another bad cycle, it will take ranchers on these windswept plains years to recover.

DARYL LIES: It's North Dakota wind. Yeah, it's - we have a North Dakota wind just about every day.

SIEGLER: In a two-bar blip of a town called Granville, I meet Daryl Lies. He's the president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. He pulled over here in between meetings with fellow ranchers. Lies says the sell-offs are crushing to see because ranchers spend decades building up quality genetics in their herds.

LIES: Just imagine if you had a job for 20 years, and now you had to go to another job, and your benefit package ain't as attractive, and your pay scale ain't as good because when you have to buy livestock back, you might not get the same quality that you had.

SIEGLER: Ranchers have already sold off nearly 25% more cattle than last year. Drive around the state, and it's an ominous yet all-too-familiar scene - trailers lined up outside the auction barns. It's the sound of wealth being drained from the prairie.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE MOOING)

SIEGLER: Some barns have reported a tenfold increase in sales. Here in Devils Lake, men clutching whips heard a trove of Black Angus into a chute, opening a huge, hulking metal door.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 1734.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: (Unintelligible).

SIEGLER: The anxious cows, white tags clipped to their ears, are funneled into a fenced pen and sawdust floor.

UNIDENTIFIED AUCTIONEER: Here we go. (Unintelligible) $60.

SIEGLER: It is a short-term boon for sale barns, but no one is celebrating. In the back office, this barn's owner, Jim Ziegler, sighs as he swats flies off a desk cluttered with paper and receipts. He figures a lot of his older customers won't be back next year.

JIM ZIEGLER: The cost is just prohibitive. Around the coffee table over there in the cafe, the guys talking around about hay costing $100 a bale. That isn't something you do if you have a large cowherd.

SIEGLER: Ziegler opened this barn in 1988, the last real bad drought year. In those days, ranches tended to be smaller, he says, and people could figure a way through. Now it just costs too much to keep a big operation going. He says this crisis feels different.

ZIEGLER: People just did not get in a position where they felt comfortable going into winter, and there's going to be more and more of that. There's going to be more decisions that have to be made here as we go through the next 30 days.

SIEGLER: Make-or-break decisions as the prospect of another dry winter looms. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Devils Lake, N.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAZEY EYES SONG, "GOODBYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.