By Eric Harrold
EDGEMONT – Anyone who knows Edgemont area rancher Mark Tubbs very well is aware that he’s one of those guys who has had to gut it out at times in order to stay in the ranching business as long as he has.
Northern Great Plains ranchers and farmers, such as Tubbs, truly appreciate the meaning of the term ‘endure’ as they never really know when the market may take a dip or when some sort of supply chain issue might rear its ugly head. And most of all, one of the most long-standing problems they have repeatedly had to find a way to survive is the unpredictability of weather. A year that’s a little more wet than usual doesn’t present a problem, but throw in a dry spell, especially in a region that may garner only 14 to 17 inches of rain in a year, and you’ve got hungry stock and perhaps not a lot to meet their needs with.
According to Tubbs, there was the time, more than half a century ago, when a rancher was just on ‘hard luck’ if things didn’t go their way in terms of getting the necessary precipitation to maintain growing, productive rangelands in a given year.
“Used to be, we’d have droughts say 30 to 40 years ago, and there would be a disaster declaration,” Tubbs said. “So then it would take Congress six months to a year to appropriate the money. On top of this, any appropriations were usually attached to another bill relating to disasters such as hurricanes or floods.”
Tubbs said that Congress grew weary of disaster bills to cover agricultural losses, so they began to promote the idea of crop insurance. When agricultural insurance came about, it offered a little compensation to help with lean times.
In the good ole days, according to Tubbs, someone from the local Farm Service Agency office would come out and assess things directly. There weren’t any ‘predictions’ and there certainly wasn’t any science to it, he said. If someone, for example, was enrolled in Livestock Forage Program under the Non-insured Agricultural Production (NAP) program, local FSA officials would assess the situation in person to determine whether insured ranchers were eligible to receive a payment to cover the cost of supplemental hay in years with insufficient production due to drought conditions.
Despite some of his claims being disputed by government scientists, Tubbs insists that the business of agriculture has become increasingly shaped by science and models, which has created more “guesswork” and also suggests this is true of the insurance programs that were created to help producers when mother nature wasn’t as kind to them.
More producers coupled with the growth in computer technology inherently meant that there would be a less direct means of assessing drought conditions. The variability of rainfall, especially on the scale of say the county-level where topographical variation can affect distribution of moisture, means that producers within a place like Fall River County may experience very different results from one another.
When it appeared to Tubbs that the National Drought Monitor, a program which began in 1999 at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, might not be correctly assessing the severity of drought for local ranchers he brought those concerns to the attention of South Dakota Senator John Thune. Thune’s senior policy advisor, Lynn Tjeerdsma was receptive to those concerns but in the end offered little in the way of a resolution to improve its assessment power.
The concerns raised by Tubbs are not new to those at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who created the National Drought Monitor, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The US Drought monitor is a map that is released every Thursday that uses five classifications to depict drought severity.
Brian Fuchs, Associate Geoscientist and Climatologist in the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, stated in an email response to an inquiry from the Fall River County Herald-Star that “the questions of data and accuracy come up quite a bit and the biggest reason is that people do not truly understand how the product is made, the information being used, and what it is trying to show.”
A visit to the U.S. Drought Monitor website revealed that the National Drought Monitor does not provide a forecast, but rather looks back to assess drought conditions based on how much rain did or didn’t fall. It relies on an integration of multiple variables including soil moisture levels, weekly stream flow, and measures of precipitation. While one is left with an appreciation for what goes into assigning an area to one of the classification levels, it doesn’t show at what scale measurements are taken.
All of Fall River County currentlyt has the D1 designation, which means “Moderate Drought.”
When asked about whether the Drought Monitor can offer accurate numbers on a fine scale that would reflect what is happening in an area where there is great variability in topography and elevation like the southern Black Hills, Fuchs responded, “There are many tools available that do have fine scale resolutions that are utilized in the several dozen inputs considered in making the weekly maps.”
“Yes, we do have the ability to ‘drill down’ to finer resolutions and do so,” Fuchs said. “There is also the chance that local conditions can and do vary based upon the data. All of this is described in the tutorial. I think the key that most people don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge is that when the intensity levels are put on the map, they are a direct reflection of the current conditions compared to the historical record for any area.”
Fuchs then gave an example of how an area can be given the designation of “D2” on the map, which is considered to be in a “Severe Drought.” To be given a label of D2, Fuchs said “the majority of the indicators being looked at would need to be in the driest 10 events ever. To be D3 on the map (Extreme Drought), the current conditions would need to be in the driest 5 events ever. Those conditions don’t happen all too often and indeed are rare events.”
Fuchs seemed to suggest that it would be hard for a rancher in Fall River County or elsewhere to fall through the cracks with respect to USDA’s use of the Drought Monitor as an assessment tool.
“The fact is, the eligibility of the Livestock Forage Production program (LFP) which is based off the USDM is invoked at the county level. As little as 0.01% of a county can be in the D2 or D3 level and the entire county is eligible,” said Fuchs. “That is how scale is accounted for in their program and we did not make the ‘rules’ up for any of the USDA programs utilizing the USDM. Secondly, there is no premium to pay by the producer so I call it a ‘freebie’ in which they get relief, needed or not, automatically if they reach eligibility levels on the USDM map.”
Fuchs went on to suggest that there are multiple factors which can influence forage quality.
“Many factors can go into why an area has poor forage: diseases, infestation, late freeze events, hail, over-grazing, management practices, etc. Drought is one of many factors which can influence how good/bad grazing can be in any particular area and there are recorded instances of these cases,” he said.
Fuchs implied that the truly extreme conditions that assistance programs were established for don’t happen all that often.
“Missing out on a rain or two is not going to throw a region into D3 drought, which will happen about once every 25 years. The LFP program is supposed to provide relief for the “worst of the worst” drought events, not every drought event. That is not how USDA intended the program to work,” Fuchs said.