PIERRE, South Dakota — Rusty Foster already sold some of his cows and may have to sell more because of the yearlong drought that hit much of the state, but recent rains have helped lift his spirits and those of his neighbors in northwestern South Dakota's Perkins County.
Foster said he got more than 2 inches of rain on his ranch 25 miles north of Faith last weekend, the first substantial rain in the area in about a year. That will help grow grass at least for a while, but he said it will take more rain to ensure a hay crop this summer.
"We're thinking it's going to get better," Foster said. "We've got a chance."
Substantial rains fell across much of South Dakota in the past week, adding to moisture from April snowstorms to improve conditions after last summer's drought that cut into crop yields and forced many ranchers to sell cattle in South Dakota and other states.
State Climatologist Dennis Todey said the recent rain has put water in the top layers of the soil in many places, making the grass greener and getting crops to start growing. But in many areas, deeper soil levels have not been recharged, he said.
"If we continue to get precipitation, even if it's not heavy, that will slowly keep us moving in the right direction," Todey said. "But because of that lack of soil moisture, we won't be able to handle very long dry periods during the year, and rangeland just flat out needs precipitation."
And due to the lack of deep soil moisture, "we don't want to say everything is better and everything is great," Todey said.
The U.S. Drought Monitor report last week indicated that all of South Dakota was at least abnormally dry. About two-thirds of the state was rated in severe or extreme drought, but no part was in the highest category of exceptional drought. That's an improvement from three months ago, when 87 percent of the state was in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.
Todey said rangeland was hit so hard last summer that it will recover only slowly, even with additional precipitation.
Foster said many ranchers in his area have sold cattle because little grass or hay grew last year, leaving them short of feed for the winter. He said many ranchers in the area will wind up selling half to all their cattle.
The grass was slow to green up because the spring was so cold and northwestern South Dakota missed the April snowstorms that helped replenish soil moisture in much of the state, Foster said. The recent rain has added green to the landscape.
"It's going to work for a while. We'll get some grass growing for a while," Foster said.
Bob Wilcox, who raises cattle and crops about 10 miles south of Fort Pierre in central South Dakota, said he will have to plant milo or other crops to replace his winter wheat, which failed to grow because of a lack of moisture after it was planted last fall. He said he used nearly all his cattle feed getting through the winter, so he needs to grow more hay and forage this summer.
However, Wilcox said he and his neighbors are in a much better mood after getting more than two inches of rain, the first significant rainfall since the middle of June last year.
"That's one thing about a drought. It affects your mental attitude. This has helped a lot," Wilcox said.
Laura Edwards, a climate field specialist for South Dakota State University Extension Service, said much of northwestern South Dakota missed out on the April snow that helped replenish topsoil moisture in other parts of the state.
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