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Going after the ‘small-squares’ after Gov. Kristi Noem opens up South Dakota ditches

A Wentworth, S.D., family cut hay on June 29, 2021, as Gov. Kristi Noem accelerated the schedule for mowing ditches on state highway ditches in eastern South Dakota because of the drought.

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Amanda Klawonn (pronounced “Klu VON”) , 30, a teacher mows the ditch along South Dakota Highway 34 west of Wentworth, S.D., on June 30, 2021, the first day Gov. Kristi Noem allowed early haying because of the drought. Photo taken June 30, 2021, in rural Wentworth, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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WENTWORTH, S.D. — They’re going after as much hay as they can while the getting is good, in the mid-stages of South Dakota’s drought of 2021. That means taking to the ditches earlier than usual.

Gov Kristi Noem, on June 29, 2021, signed an executive order authorizing earlier-than-usual ditch hay harvesting because of the drought.

South Dakota has 82,501 miles of roadway, including 7,794 miles of state highways. That’s 9.4% of the total miles, but it carries 68% of the vehicle miles traveled.

Typically, state rules prevent state highway ditch mowing East River before July 10. This year, high temperatures and lack of precipitation will cause a general hay shortage in the state.

“With a mild winter and early spring, most of the pheasant hatch is well behind us, and we do not expect this move to affect pheasant numbers,” said Noem, always anxious to protect hunting tourism.

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‘A good move’

“I think it was a good move,” said Amanda Klawonn (pronounced “Klu VON”), driving a yellow-painted John Deere 6300 tractor and 7-foot mower along South Dakota Highway 34, west of Wentworth, S.D.

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Amanda Klawonn (pronounced “Klu VON”) of Wentworth, S.D., on June 29, 2021, takes a break from mowing ditches east of Madison, S.D. It was the same day Gov. Kristi Noem allowed earlier-than-usual ditch mowing to help fill hay needs for farmers in the drought of 2021. Photo taken June 30, 2021, in rural Wentworth, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Amanda, 30, originally is from Centerville, S.D. Her husband, Brant, 31, is from Viborg, S.D. He earned a diesel technician certification in 2010 from Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, S.D. They married in 2010 and moved to Madison, S.D. where Amanda graduated in elementary special education at Dakota State University. Initially, Brant worked for Lake County International in Madison for seven years and opened his own shop in Wentworth — Diesel Docs, a diesel ag repair business. Amanda teaches behavioral special education in the Madison school district.

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Aedan Klawonn (pronounced “Klu VON”), 13, of Wentworth, S.D., holds bottle goats that will consume some of the ditch hay her mother, Amanda, was cutting on June 29, 2021, along South Dakota Highway 34, between Wentworth and Madison, on the first day of an early-cutting drought emergency order by South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem. Photo taken June 30, 2021, in rural Wentworth, S.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“It started mainly as a hobby to feed our critters,” Amanda said, taking a brief break to talk with a passer-by. On the side, the Klawonns have a small livestock farm that has an outsized appetite for hay. Amanda half-jokingly describes it as a “funny farm” — a couple of horses, cows, six fat beef cattle, Rambouillet sheep ewes, a llama, some goats, pigs, chickens, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats and rabbits. “Sheep are hard on hay,” Amanda said.

While she was out cutting hay, the kids — Aedan, 13, Ainslie, 9, and Clayton, 5 — hold down the fort, with bottle calves and goats.

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“They like to help, stacking bales,” Amanda said. “So, I’m going to hang onto that as long as we can.”

For the ‘squares’

Three years ago they started mowing ditches in the area, initially using a borrowed baler. In 2020, they bought their own baler. The couple have taken on a variety of tasks. They’ve square-baled popcorn aftermath for Dakota Brothers, a popcorn company about a mile from them.

“My husband has always wanted to do small square bales, for some reason,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “He small-square-baled when he was in high school, for a farmer, so he knows all about this. I just listen and try my best to be a farmhand.”

Some landowners take a share of the bales, on a 60-40 arrangement, depending on whether they want round or square bales. Others simply want their ditches cleaned up and mowed. The Klawonns had done more than 500 square bales and 29 round bales as of July 7, 2021.

Amanda said they would be cutting more to keep this year because the drought has increased prices.

“We’re probably only going to get one cutting out of everything,” she said. “Last year we had two cuttings in some spots. This year it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough all over the state.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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