Arctic winter blasts district agriculture

"Yeah, but it's nothing compared to '36."

Edward Lotterman | Agricultural Economist

Published January 1, 1997  | January 1997 issue

That rejoinder to any complaint about the harshness of winter weather is familiar to those who grew up on the Great Plains in the 1950s or 1960s. But after the winter of 1996-1997, that retort may be as dated as a Model A. Beginning with early snows, ice storms in November, extreme cold and a rolling barrage of blizzards from mid-December through January, the winter of 1996-1997 is setting records for severity. And Ninth District farmers and ranchers are among the hardest hit.

This winter is severe in several aspects. Snowfalls have exceeded usual levels in many areas. By the end of January, Fargo, N.D., had received nearly 80 inches, twice the winter average. West-central Minnesota temperatures averaged 6 degrees below normal during December and 4 degrees below normal in January. In the eastern Dakotas, the number of days with snowfalls was already twice the winter average. Record low temperatures were set on several days at many locations across the district, and average temperatures place the winter among the five worst on record.

Hay prices climb as cattle losses mount

In terms of immediate effects, livestock owners are bearing the brunt of things. In western parts of the district, ranchers customarily use pastures to maintain herds through fall and into early winter. Further east, in mixed crop-livestock areas, beef herds often glean missed ears of corn and graze on husks. Early snows forestalled those options across the district, forcing cattle raisers to dip into winter feed stocks early. In Montana the problem was so pronounced that hay prices rose to twice usual levels by the beginning of the year. In some cases, ranchers have hay on their property but are unable to reach stacks in certain locations with either vehicles or cattle because of snow drifts. Normally a state that exports hay to other areas from its irrigated valleys, Montana has become a hay importer with loads coming from Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska.

The frequent closing of interstate highways by blizzards has further complicated hay shipments, making spot prices at auctions highly volatile. District states have established hay hotlines to match buyers and sellers, but the increased cost of hay puts severe pressure on the cash flows of ranchers, who normally have few variable expenditures.

In addition to increased feed costs, extreme cold and windchill have killed livestock in some areas. One estimate is that 5 percent or more of cattle in northern counties across South Dakota have died of cold and exposure. Another late-January estimate put the losses at about 40,000 cattle in South Dakota, 16,000 in North Dakota and almost 3,000 in Minnesota; no reports were available for Montana.

Those cattle that survive are often in poor condition. Frequently interrupted access to feed and water and the metabolic demands of staying warm in windchills of 50 degrees or more below zero means that feeder cattle are gaining little, if any, weight and stock cows are not in good condition as they enter the last stages of gestation. While it is impossible to quantify the damage, prolonged stress of this type can cause marginally higher levels of spontaneous abortion and still births, somewhat lower birthweights and less hardy calves that will perform less well over the summer. One northeastern North Dakota extension agent expects a 5 percent to 10 percent greater calf mortality.

In eastern parts of the Dakotas and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, most livestock have access to shelter. But Minnesota's Farm Service Agency reports that by late January, over 5,000 livestock buildings had either collapsed or been damaged due to snow loads. Even with adequate shelter, livestock performance is generally poor. Some dairy farmers whose cows are exposed to the weather for feeding or in moving between buildings report frostbitten udders and other problems.

Many hog and poultry farmers struggle with snowdrifts blocking fan ducts and other ventilation facilities, and nearly 190,000 chickens and turkeys have been reported lost in Minnesota due to collapsed buildings. Many farms are episodically unreachable by feed trucks, and numerous dairy farmers in northwestern Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas have had to dump milk because bulk trucks could not reach the farm for pickup.

Some southwestern Minnesota farmers report that since mid-November they have used as much diesel fuel running standby alternators and plowing or blowing snow as they would normally use in April and May for tillage and planting. Businesses and households across the district are experiencing unusually high heating costs, which have been accentuated for some by sharp increases in the cost of propane.

Flooding expected

The bad weather has not generally affected crop operations yet, although a few farmers report grain bins splitting apart because of snow loads. However, there are concerns about what will happen when the snow melts. Flooding is already anticipated in several areas, especially eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota, and in the James and Big Sioux river valleys of South Dakota. One Minnesota official says it's not a question of whether there will be flooding, but rather how much flooding will occur.

By the end of January, many areas had gotten over twice their average winter snowfall, and the months that normally have the greatest amounts remain ahead. University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley reports that the water content of snow on the ground is higher than usual. Despite the fact that cold weather has prevented much of the mid-winter melting that usually occurs during periodic warmings, some rivers already show flows well above usual levels. At the end of January, the Sheyenne River, which drains much of eastern North Dakota, was flowing at six times its usual seasonal rate just above where it joins the Red River at Fargo. [Storm levels and flow information for nearly 200 different cities in the Ninth District are available on the Internet at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.]

There is also concern that Devils Lake, which has flooded 60,000 acres while tripling in size over the past three years, will cover additional land, including lowlying areas of the town, once the spring melt begins. Emergency management directors in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota have already issued warnings for residents to begin to plan for spring flooding. The National Weather Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are stepping up snow pack surveys. The first flood forecast for 1997 was due on Feb. 14.

National markets mostly unaffected

While the full economic costs of the severe winter cannot be tabulated for some time, they are considerable. For many farms, the added costs of this winter may cause delays in planned capital purchases. For households, there may be some shifts in consumption, from discretionary consumer goods—such as meals away from home or recreation—to heating fuel, auto repairs and snow removal services.

Among farmers, cattle raisers are under the greatest immediate pressure. Winter losses are not likely to lead to widespread liquidations, but on the margin they may be the straw that breaks the camel's back for some ranchers, already beset by 2-1/2 years of low prices. Losses will be hard on many individual producers and communities, but they are not likely to significantly affect prices or output for the nation as a whole.