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A full year of devastating weather has South Dakota farmers wondering how they can keep their operations afloat and hoping a hard freeze is on its way soon.
Four months after record-breaking rains fell on the eastern half of the state, many fields and pastures—and even some roads—remain underwater. Other roads have re-opened, but lakes that have formed in ditches and fields adjacent to highways and gravel roads notorious for icing over in the wintertime add to motorists’ safety concerns this winter.
“I wish it would freeze real good,” said Richard Aulner, a fourth-generation farmer in Hanson County in the southeast part of the state. “Then we will have solid road until spring anyway. … There’s one gushy spot, but at least my feed truck can get in now.”
The growing season of 2018 ended with more moisture in the ground than producers would like, and the first nine months of 2019 brought higher-than-average precipitation. Some portions of South Dakota, including Hanson County, had double the average amount of precipitation by September.
Then, more than a foot of water dropped on the area in under 24 hours, September 11-12.
With the deluge, roads and fields that had just returned to useable condition became impassable again. State and county highways and bridges washed out, interstates went under water, breached dams drained lakes, and tornadoes ripped through the area. The worst tornado damage was caused by three EF2 tornadoes that struck a busy shopping district and two major hospitals in the state’s largest city, Sioux Falls.
A Flooded Farm
Among the inundated areas were the gravel roads leading to Aulner farm. September 14, the farmer reluctantly loaded his wife and children into the cab of his tractor, which was barely above the water’s crest, and drove them a few miles to dry ground at Bobbie Aulner’s parents’ farm. They stayed there seven weeks while Aulner remained to tend the family’s hog confinement, cattle and goats alone. During that time, the main road to the farm crested to nine feet.
Initially, the only access to the farm was by way of boat or by opening and closing six gates to travel over pastureland. For 18 days, township pumps worked 24 hours a day to drain a road, but taking it meant an extra eight miles every time they left home.
More than three months later, conditions remain troublesome. “The road is going to be a worry all winter—we have water right up to the road,” Aulner said. “And there will be more snow removal this year, because I have to take a different road than normal, and this one gets deeper snowbanks.”
The Aulner farm is in what Richard describes as the “bowl” of the township. While it often catches runoff, the 15-foot-deep lake that is still present between him and his closest neighbor is unprecedented.
“My grandpa couldn’t remember it being so deep when it was way (lower) one time,” Aulner said.
Nine inches of rain fell on Aulner’s land during the two-day span in September. Runoff turned into ponds covering hundreds of acres each. Eventually, they filled until they spilled into one another.
The Road to Higher Ground
The decision to have his family leave was difficult for everyone, but Aulner knew it must be done after he left for a few hours and returned in water that came up to the bottom of the cab of his tractor.
“Not wanting to keep pushing his machinery to the breaking point the family had to make a hard decision,” said Richard’s wife, Bobbie Aulner.
They packed a few things into laundry baskets, set them in the tractor’s loader bucket, and the foursome stuffed into the cab and made a quiet 200-yard ride through the dangerously high waters.
Part of the way, “you could see the grass along the edge of the road,” Aulner recalled. “As you got a little farther out, you had to watch ahead, because you couldn’t see the edge anymore, and the waves would start to get to you. By the time it starts to get this deep, you can’t see the grass on the edge of the road anymore—just the occasional sunflower sticking up in the middle.”
The day after Bobbie vacated the family farm, Aulner’s family surprised him when they floated into the yard by way of a flat-bottom boat she had purchased as a surprise to her husband.
The first day, he used the boat to look for more of his cattle that initially had been spread out over several islands of land on the farmyard.
“I was short 35 or 40 (of his 150) cow-calf pairs at first,” Aulner said. But, as he got to an area he couldn’t reach by pickup or tractor, he was able to see around an island and was shocked to find another 39 there.
Most of the cattle grouped up in the first couple of weeks following the major flood and Aulner said he thinks he only has lost a couple of bulls so far. He worries, however, that more loss may be on the horizon if conditions don’t improve soon.
More Challenges Ahead
Aulner said he started feeding his cattle bales of hay before the most recent flooding, in an attempt to replace the grass lost to the flood earlier in the year.
“That’s not ever a good thing in September,” he said. “You try not to feed them until November or December, ideally. … When you start to feed them five or six bales a day in September, it’s a long time until next June.”
Though he’d never been forced to sell livestock due to feed shortages before, in December, Aulner said he’d sold his calves to feedyards and the rest of his livestock may soon have to go, too.
His facilities and pastures are still under water, and he is worried about the buildings that still have three feet of water inside.
“It’s not a good outlook,” he said. “They’re standing now, but that ice banging into them (as it breaks up this spring) won’t be good.”
The wet summer made baling new hay all but impossible.
“If you got a good, quality hay this year, you got lucky,” Aulner said, adding that he was able to bale enough for about 100 days of winter feed. He still has some stock-piled from last year, but because of water detours, he now has to drive 11 miles to get to them, instead of the normal three miles.
“The corn stalks will buy us some time, but I may eventually have to haul some cows away. It’s something I haven’t ever had to do before, but it can be done.”
In an attempt to keep his 1,100 hogs fed, Aulner created a track through corn and soybean plants and pastures to get a feed truck in as necessary. That route involved opening and closing six gates to keep his cattle in and weaving around potholes and ponds, but it was his only lifeline for the animals.
“You avoid going anywhere when you have to open and close six gates behind you,” he joked, but now that the water has receded enough for him to take the road, he still doesn’t leave home much. “There’s plenty to do here.”
A Year of Stress
“This’ll be a good year to be behind me,” Aulner said. “It’s been a long one.”
The 50-year-old lost his grandmother and his father, who was his farming partner, in a span of two months. Ronnie Aulner was “Richard’s right arm,” according to his wife, and neither was known to be seen around town without the other.
“We were partners in everything,” Richard Aulner confirmed of his 70-year-old father. “He was still farming. He talked about quitting, but he never did.”
Together, the Aulners weathered last year’s cold, blizzardy winter and soggy spring. They watched as homes and farms throughout the region that had never dealt with flooding began to deteriorate with the ground conditions. The men, like many farmers in the area, struggled to reach laboring cows, and the task became even more difficult after Ronnie Aulner died.
“It was possible, but it wasn’t easy,” Richard said of keeping the operation – and calving season – afloat while grieving his father and farming partner.
Richard Aulner and his 15-year-old son, Jonathan, were able to plant 650 of the family’s usual 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans in the spring.
“That’s a lot better than some guys,” Aulner said.
South Dakota farmers left nearly 4 million acres of cropland unplanted this growing season—the most in the nation—due to unfavorable conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s over one-fifth of the 19 million acres of cropland left empty this year nationwide.
And much of what was planted in South Dakota washed out at some point during the growing season. With a few fields of corn and beans harvested this fall, Aulner said, “We were feeling a little bit lucky” before early-September flooding took out most of the remaining fields in the area.
August, September and October in South Dakota are typically dry months—often checkered with heat advisories and burning bans—but rains on the plains continued, and this fall the ground was left wetter than last year, leaving many on edge about the upcoming winter and the planting season that will follow.
“It’s going to have to be a dry winter and spring to be able to farm anything that didn’t get farmed this year,” Aulner said. “If we get more rain, I hope it comes very nicely, because where I’m getting out will be my last option to get cattle and hogs out if it came to that.”
Despite the stresses and worries of 2019, Aulner faces 2020 with his characteristically quiet sense of humor and optimism.
“I suppose us and the neighbors will fight over whether this will be called Aulner Lake or Weber Lake,” Aulner said, chuckling at the seemingly impossible situation.
“One inch of rain, and we could be back in the same boat we were in before,” he added, tongue-in-cheek.
He “simply shrugs” at discussion of the future and says, “What can you do? I can’t make it go away.”
“Richard has not complained throughout any of the flooding. (He) is out checking cows in a jon boat instead of a tractor, and it takes a little longer to get the groceries for the week in from the road a half mile east of the farm. But, he is making it work for now, with a shrug and a smile,” his wife Bobbie Aulner said.
Her husband said he clings to hope to get through the hard moments and points out that he is not the only farmer facing difficulty this year.
“There are lots of other people with roads and bridges washed out who need to get to work,” he said, adding that his closest neighbor’s home had been evacuated. “This isn’t forever,” he said, though he anticipates being water-logged for quite some time. “There’s just no place for this water to go,” and his property’s elevation is lower than the creeks and ravines that drain his neighbors’ land.
Aulner’s father was a longtime member of the township board, and now he trusts that the remaining members are hard at work determining a long-term solution for roads that are still underwater, including the one he normally uses to get home.
“They’ve built up the (main) road twice that I can remember in my life, but there’s eight feet of water there now, and it’s a long stretch,” he said. “We’ve got to give them a little time to figure out where they’re going to get the money from.”
Recently, Hanson County was declared a disaster area by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so some dollars may be available to help with damage to Aulner’s and other area farms, but he said he’s focused on just keeping up with the tasks at hand and hasn’t looked too far into any aid.
“I’ll get some crop insurance, but most farmers prefer to be able to get their crops in,” he said. “It’s not guaranteed that you’ll make money that way, but it’s what you’re set up for.”