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SDSU Extension’s Approach to the 2017 Drought

a graphic showing the soil moisture capacity of the United States.
Figure 1. Soil moisture storage capacity helps determine drought vulnerability. Source: USDA Economic Research Service.

Originally authored by Alvaro Garcia, former SDSU Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources Program Director.

South Dakota Drought Conditions

Most of the Great Plains, of which Western South Dakota is part of, have always been considered a semi-arid area of the U.S. This region is characterized by hot, relatively short summers, and usually cold, dry winters. Annual precipitation increases by almost 70 percent between the Western (East of the Rockies) and Eastern ends of the Great Plains. Potential moisture losses by evapotranspiration also increase by almost 400 percent between the Northern (Canadian border) and the Southern ends.

Agriculture is challenged by climate variability interspersed with periods of precipitation shortages. Susceptibility to drought however is not only determined by the yearly precipitation but also by the moisture storage capacity of the different soil types.

Figure 1. Shows that west of the Missouri River the moisture storage capacity is low compared to the eastern portion. Even during years of normal rainfall there can be short-term dry periods that can affect crop output as well as grasslands.

Timing is Everything                                 

Dan Millman is an American writer who said, “Think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything” In early June 2017 the conditions were set for a drier than normal year. This was earlier than previous droughts had started however, there was no time to lose if there was going to be an impact among the livelihood of stakeholders. At that point SDSU Extension alerted the public with the iGrow article Dry conditions: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

On July 12, 2017 the National Oceanic and Environmental Administration (NOAA) issued a statement: “Based on the Palmer Drought Index, severe to extreme drought affected about 1 percent of the contiguous United States as of the end of June 2017, a decrease of about 1 percent from last month. About 10 percent of the contiguous U.S. fell in the severely to extremely wet categories”. In this release the agency further stated “warmer- and drier-than-normal weather started to be experienced across the West and Great Plains."

Drought Task Force

At the same time a drought task force was appointed with the following SDSU Extension individuals:

  • Amanda Bachmann
    SDSU Extension Pesticide Education & Urban Entomology Field Specialist
  • Pete Bauman
    SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist
  • Ruth Beck
    SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialist
  • Matthew Diersen
    Professor & SDSU Extension Risk/Business Management Specialist
  • Laura Edwards (task force coordinator)
    SDSU Extension State Climatologist
  • Alvaro Garcia
    Former SDSU Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources Program Director
  • Lindsey Gerard
    SDSU Extension iGrow Technology Coordinator
  • Heather Gessner
    SDSU Extension Livestock Business Management Field Specialist
  • Taylor Grussing
    SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist
  • Paul O. Johnson
    SDSU Extension Weed Science Coordinator
  • David Kringen
    SDSU Extension Water Resources Field Specialist
  • David Ollila
    SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist
  • Robin Salverson
    SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist
  • Suzanne Stluka
    SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director

Selection Criteria

The selection of these individuals was based on: 1) Their area of emphasis (experts in livestock, crops, grassland, water, and climate), 2) Previous experience dealing with dry conditions, 3) A blend of new and experienced Field Specialists. 4) The part of the state where they perform their duties. There was a need for broad expertise of individuals with and without experience (fresh ideas), and who received feedback from stakeholders in different parts of the state.


a graphic showing a map of South Dakota's drought status
U.S. Drought Monitor - South Dakota as of July 18, 2017. Author: R. Helm, NCEI/NOAA

SDSU Extension Approach

Media Efforts

Starting in June the drought task force convened weekly on Fridays to discuss the approach. It was decided that the best strategy was to first set the stage by “creating the awareness” through iGrow articles, newspaper columns, and radio spots, then followed by a “road tour”. Between June and July 26 SDSU Extension released 42 articles on drought related and 24 radio interviews. Every week (every 15 days for Natural Resources) articles on drought were highlighted in the three SDSU Extension Newsletters: Pest and Crop, Livestock, and Natural Resources. There were 7 news releases associated with drought topics.

Regional Meetings

The locations chosen for this road tour were not haphazard and all except one (Lemmon) were not conducted at the SDSU Extension Regional Centers. The drought task force decided instead to choose towns in areas most affected by the drought. Although Dakota Digital Network (DDN) technology is available in each SDSU Extension Regional Center (used in several past meetings) SDSU Extension chose face-to-face delivery. The decision for this approach was based on the premise that attending drought meetings required an effort by the audience, both mentally and physically. There are other urgent things to take care of and think about in their farm. A DDN presentation while convenient for the presenter since he/she can deliver remotely, it is impersonal for emotionally charged situations, such as drought meetings.  SDSU Extension Field Specialists chose to deliver in person, and they were rewarded with unprecedented attendance.  The drought task force initially chose six locations, of which only one (Lemmon) was at the local SDSU Extension Regional Center. The six locations were Herreid, Lemmon, Faith, Gettysburg, Pierre, and Chamberlain.

Attendance & Reach

There were approximately 50 producers in attendance on the first three, which increased to over 70 in the last one (Chamberlain; last picture). In total SDSU Extension reached nearly 300 individuals directly; when considering the number of individuals per household reported by the US census the total reached indirectly approached approximately 750 individuals.