(CN) – Rain—a little—finally fell Sunday night on the Loughlin Ranch two miles west of Bison, South Dakota, in the state’s remote northwestern Perkins County. The area is home to slim buttes and many cow herds and sheep flocks, including Eliza Blue’s and her husband’s. For a day or so, the grass was green.
“If you’d come tomorrow, though,” Blue said, “this might be brown.”
“All we need is one 90-degree day,” she added.
Her husband, Max Loughlin, runs a fencing business on the side. He had started work early that day because temperatures were supposed to reach 92. But making money is crucial right now for agricultural workers in a plains state where over 80 percent are living in drought.
Just how bad the drought is spurs debate. Tuesday morning, just after dawn, a group sat talking on plastic chairs and sipping coffee inside a gas station in Faith, South Dakota, on the western side of the state – right in the zone where the drought is rated as “severe” by the U.S. Drought Monitor out of Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I’ve been brand inspector for over 50 years,” said Jim Calloway, who sat center with an ascot around his neck and a large cowboy hat on. “We’ve seen them like this before.”
“It was dryer than this back in 2002,” Calloway added.
The state experienced droughts as recently as 2012 and 2015 as well.
But perspective on the drought largely depends on which part of the state you visit.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Dennis Daugaard declared a state of emergency. Trucks hauling hay have been allowed longer hours. Grass along highways, normally cut by the state, can be baled to feed hungry cattle who are eating down to grassy nubs and dirt. This week, the governor announced it was OK to graze cattle on federal conservation reserve program, or CRP, land.
Emergency relief also comes in the form of three months of payments per-head of cattle from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for livestock producers in six counties in South Dakota where the drought is the worst. But the payments are no substitute for a typical sale, and crop insurance is only as good as a farmer’s predictions.
“It frosted here Saturday night,” said Kris Rausch by phone Monday evening. Rausch was in rural Gettysburg, in north-central South Dakota. “It just killed our corn crop.”
Temperatures dipped below 32-degrees Fahrenheit in some areas that night.
“I was at a cousin’s wedding Saturday night and went to bed seeing the temperature at around 35,” said Rausch’s son, A.J., who farms with the family. “When I woke up, I saw the damage.”
Tuesday night, A.J. gave a tour of his family’s fields, pointing out the tarnished corn. Amidst the green coloration, some of the corn sported golden crowns, indicating spoilage from the freeze. The family still has some grass for its cattle operation, but it’s getting low.
Driving his pickup through a pasture, A.J. pointed to the top of the fence, clearly visible by a couple feet over the most ambitious stalks.
“By now that grass is usually fence-level,” he said. “We’ve seen only a couple inches of rain since the summer started.”
This is the grass he’d hoped to feed his cattle. A nearby wheat field has already been baled.
Farther west and an hour north of the northern tip of the Black Hills, near Mud Butte, Larry Stomprud is getting creative to help his herd of black angus.
“Right now it’s easier to ship the cows to the feed than to ship the feed to us,” he said.
When the weather turns cold, Stomprud said, he may send his cows east to be wintered in states with thicker grass.
“I don’t want to over-romanticize it,” Stomprud, who entered ranching on his family’s homesteaded property 22 years ago after a career in the military, said, “but ranchers are a resilient lot.”
Some ranchers are selling off cows. Two weeks ago, Casey Perman at the livestock barn in Mobridge, just south of the North Dakota border, said the number of cattle sold dwarfed in one day what he might see sold in all of June in a typical year.
In agriculture-dominated areas, towns rise and fall on the livestock and commodity market.
“What we have up here is grass,” Blue said, back in Bison. She noted that her pastor had reported dried-up church offerings the previous Sundays. “Out in those country churches, those are all ranchers.”
Aridity is nothing new to northwestern South Dakota, settled about a century ago. Outlasting tough times is a badge of honor in places where many still work land homesteaded by great-grandparents. But moisture was hard to come by last year, too.
Along with constructing fences, Blue’s husband works at the sale barn in Faith, where they’re frequently selling “pairs” – or a mother and her calf. He said that usually in June, a “fencecrawler” or other troublesome cow might be sold, but this year ranchers are selling valued constituents of their herds.
“It [the drought] is only starting to take its toll,” Blue said. Frying pans hung over her head at the kitchen table while she held her baby and another son played the upright piano in the living room.
Summer months after calving are typically slower for ranchers, and Blue’s husband was out constructing a fence. In this linked economy, even this side-job—patching fences damaged by winter storms or ornery cows—has dried-up.
“He had all kinds of orders call him up and say, ‘Sorry, but we just can’t afford to do it this summer,’” she said.