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Drought threat recedes from northern Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Dan Lilienthal says his farm can’t take another dry summer. If the experts are right and current trends hold, he won’t have to.

The drought that prompted the federal government last year to declare an agricultural disaster area in 39 northern Minnesota counties is over in the state’s prime agricultural areas, climatologists say.

"I don’t want to ever see it as dry again as last year," Lilienthal said. "Man, that was a fiery furnace, that heat wave!"

But things are looking up at Lilienthal’s dairy and beef farm near Quamba, about 65 miles north of Minneapolis, where he grows his own corn, alfalfa and hay. The snow and rain he badly needed started coming last month.

New data Thursday from the National Drought Mitigation Center showed the only areas still in drought are largely forested parts of far north-central and northeastern Minnesota. Drought in southern Minnesota — where most of the state’s key row crops are grown — "has gone away," said Greg Spoden, assistant state climatologist.

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Conditions have improved across much of the Upper Midwest. Last July, all of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska and nearly all of Iowa and Wisconsin were either in drought or close to it. Thursday’s drought center data showed the eastern halves of the Dakotas and Nebraska were out of drought, as was all of Iowa and all but a small part of far northern Wisconsin.

In northeastern Minnesota, foresters are expecting an above-average fire season, said Jean Bergerson, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Long-range forecasts suggest there should be some relief over the next three months, but it’s unclear when that rain will come, she said.

Lake and stream levels are expected to remain low in the dry areas of northern Minnesota, including prime vacationlands.

Spoden said the one potential trouble spot for Minnesota agriculture is in the Red River Valley in the northwest, where much of last year’s crop survived the drought by draining subsoil moisture 3 to 4 feet down.

While Minnesota farmers overall enjoyed record farm income for the second straight year in 2006, the biggest beneficiaries were corn and soybean farmers in southern Minnesota who eventually got rain and reaped the benefit of high prices fueled by the ethanol boom. It was a harder year for livestock and dairy producers.

Dale Nordquist, associate director of the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota, saad crop producers are expected to do well again, and many have already sold some of their future crop at good prices. High feed prices and other rising costs of production will continue to pressure livestock producers, he said.

Nordquist said farmers like Lilienthal who raise food for their animals should consider crop insurance, which helps even though it doesn’t compensate for all their losses.

"A lot of people don’t insure their forages," Nordquist said. "More and more are probably going to have to start thinking about that."

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Lilienthal said his corn crop last year was only half its normal size, so he ran out of silage to feed his milk cows late last month. He had to buy hay out of South Dakota and from his neighbor, an unwelcome expense given that milk prices are low. But he counts himself fortunate that he had some hay left over from 2005 that he could feed his beef cattle, which can tolerate lower-quality forage.

Now, Lilienthal sees hopeful signs on his farm. For one thing, the pond that supplies his cattle with water is now full.

"Last fall that stock pond was so low that instead of ducks swimming across it, they would walk," he said.

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On the Net:

Drought Monitor: http://drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html

Minnesota Climatology Working Group: http://climate.umn.edu/climatology.htm

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Steve Karnowski can be reached at skarnowski(at)ap.org

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