Source: pixabay

The 2021 Drought Wasn't Just a West Coast Thing

The drought in the United States got a lot of attention last summer. I wrote here and here about its effect on crop acreage in California and here about its effects on water trading. National media articles about the drought also focused on the west. 

The drought was also bad in the upper great plains, especially in Montana and North Dakota where it had a devastating effect on the wheat crop. Moreover, it remains remains extreme and exceptional in that region, even as large snowfalls this winter have alleviated some of the drought stress in California.

Drought Map
Source: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Maps/MapArchive.aspx

The upper great plains states grow most of the hard red spring in the US. Hard red spring wheat is a high-quality wheat variety used to produce flour for breads and hard-baked goods; it makes up about a quarter of all wheat produced in the United States. A further 40% of United States wheat production is hard winter wheat, which is produced in central and southern great plains states such as Kansas. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the late summer to early fall. 

Spring Wheat Production
Source: Our US Crops data app


North Dakota is the largest US producer of hard red spring wheat, with about half the nation’s harvest. Montana and Minnesota are the next largest producers.

Spring Wheat Production
Source: Our US Crops data app


Last summer, most of North Dakota was in extreme or exceptional drought.

US drought in summer 2021
Source: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Maps/MapArchive.aspx


The 2021 drought hit spring wheat hard, reducing national average yield by 33% from 2020. In Montana, yield dropped by 55%, and it dropped by 32% in North Dakota.  For comparison, the big 2012 drought reduced national corn yield by 16%, and it reduced Illinois corn yield by 33%, from the previous year.

Spring wheat yield
Source: Our US Crops data app


Extreme heat is an excellent indicator for how drought affects crop yields. Spring wheat yields in Montana were very low in 1985, 1988, 2006, and 2017. These same years also had a lot of days with temperatures above 30° C. These days occurred in June and July in 1988 and mostly in July in the other years.

Our US weather data app doesn't yet have 2021 data, so I don't have 2021 on this graph. We're working on a new and improved weather app that will stay up to date. See the Read Me in our app for information on how to calculate this degree days statistic. 

MT Extreme Heat
Source: Our US County Weather data app


As is typical with agricultural products, a decline in production causes a substantial increase in price, which insulates farmers from revenue loss. US crop insurance data show that wheat farmers received $1.6 billion in insurance payouts (indemnities) in 2021, which is double the average for 2015-2020, but much less than the payouts due to drought in 2013-15.

Crop insurance indemnities
Source: Our US Crop Insurance data app


The 2021 drought hit the wheat-growing regions in the northern great plains hard. So far, this winter has not provided any relief.


You can view the figures in this article using our data apps, where you can also download the data with one click.  Check them out.