Last fall, South Dakota's fledgling winter wheat crop was doing well, with more than three-quarters of the crop rated good or excellent. But dry conditions and lack of snow cover — which exposed the now-dormant crop to more wind damage — have combined to hammer winter wheat in the state.

Even in early November, after the crop had begun to decline, "67% of winter wheat was good or excellent. But we've seen a steady downgrading of winter wheat conditions in South Dakota all winter long so far. It's predominantly drought-based and no snow and snow cover. It's (winter wheat) really been left out there to endure the winter on its own," said Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission.

The most recent "State Stories" report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that dry conditions and unseasonably warm weather were common across the Upper Midwest in late January. The state-by-state report examines winter weather's effects on "crops, livestock, fruit trees; consideration for moisture, snow cover, temperatures, and crop condition; and the effect of weather, insects, diseases, etc., on crops and livestock."

For South Dakota, the report found for the week ending Jan. 24, topsoil moisture supplies rated just 38% adequate, 43% short and 19% very short. Subsoil moisture supplies were even more limited, with 36% adequate, 44% short and 20% very short.

Winter wheat conditions in late January in the state were rated 32% good, 47% fair and 21% poor or very poor.

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South Dakota winter wheat was doing much better in the fall of 2020. In late October, 77% of the crop was rated good or excellent, with 18% fair and 5% percent poor or very poor.

But drought and the "constant barrage of wind and being sandblasted by dirt and snow have made it kind of tough," he said.

Unlike spring wheat, which is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, winter wheat is planted in the fall, goes dormant in winter and resumes growing in the spring. Typically, winter wheat is harvested before spring wheat and can help to spread out the workload, as well as potentially reduce risk.

Both winter wheat and spring wheat are important in South Dakota. In 2020, farmers in the state planted 770,000 acres of spring wheat and 630,00 acres of winter wheat, according to USDA.

Winter wheat in much of the state potentially could begin to come out of dormancy in about six weeks, and precipitation then could give a much-needed boost, Christopherson said.

"Maybe a well-timed rain would produce some results that would be very welcomed," he said. "Otherwise, I'll think we have a tough future (for the new winter wheat crop)," he said.

Some winter wheat apparently was planted as what Christopherson called "a low-cost cover crop." Winter wheat in some of those fields, especially ones hit particularly hard by drought and wind, possibly could be abandoned this spring and some other crop planted in its place, he said.

Selected highlights

Here are some highlights from the the most recent National Agricultural Statistics Service State Stories report for Iowa, Minnesota, Montana and North Dakota:

  • Iowa — January bought "unseasonably warm temperatures across the state." That was beneficial for livestock, with animals continuing to graze on cornstalks, and lambing and calving underway. But "soil moisture levels continue to be a concern due to below-average snowfall as farmers look forward to the 2021 crop year."
  • Minnesota — The month brought "below-normal precipitation amounts and above-normal temperatures." That allowed widespread grain movement and lower-than-normal consumption of feed by livestock. "Overall, January livestock conditions have been good as farmers prepare for calving season. Lambing is already underway."

  • Montana — 81% of the state is abnormally dry or in drought, with a dry and windy January exacerbating the problem. Though 68% of winter wheat is rated good or excellent, 71% of the crop suffers from very poor snow cover protection. And temperatures were higher than average, with high temperatures ranging from the mid-20s to the mid-60s.

  • North Dakota — Both topsoil and subsoil moisture are limited, with 75% of topsoil short or very short and 70% of subsoil moisture short or very short. But livestock losses generally have been minimal: Cattle and calf death loss is 65% light and 34% average, with sheep and lamb death 53% light and 45% average.