01 Jan 2012

Northern Great Plains Region

This region consists of the northern expanse of the North American Great Plains. It has characteristically cold winters and warm summers with a relatively shorter growing season, but long daylight hours during the growing season. Crops are predominately small grains and oils seed crops, as well as cool season forage crops.

The NGP Region consists of the States of North Dakota, Montana and the Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Geo-physically this area is the northern extension of the central Great Plains of North America. The region does have extensive areas of cultivated agriculture with clay loam to loam textured soils generally. However there are significant portions of the landscape that are less suitable for cultivated agriculture and are used for livestock grazing or in natural vegetation. In the drier, southern parts this is dominated by grasslands, while in the cooler, higher precipitation northern and eastern parts transition areas of grassland mixed with trees, and or trees and associated vegetation exist. Land not suitable for cultivated crops in the region is because of such characteristics as coarse textured or sandy soils with low moisture holding characteristics, excessive rockiness, too steep of slopes in hilly areas, areas of poor drainage, salinity and or excess sodicity. The mountains occur on the western border of the region in Montana and Alberta.

Much of the area from the middle of North Dakota and Montana north was repeatedly glaciated over the last 100,000 years and the most recent glacial events and deposits were from 8000 to 10,000 years ago. The glaciated landscapes and surficial geology are a mix of extensive areas of clay loam textured glacial till (diamicton) with significant field stones in the surficial deposit, but interspersed by fluvial and lacustrian water deposits from glacial melt-water streams and lakes, as well as regular stream and river surface water flows over the landscape. There are large level areas consisting of clay textured soils where large glacial lakes existed, for example the Glacial Lake Agassi basin in eastern North Dakota and southeast Manitoba.

Generally speaking most the surface runoff from the Canadian-USA border north is towards the northeast draining into the Arctic ocean, while the areas south of the border drains south and east into the Missouri River that feeds into the Mississippi river system. The exception is the east edge of North Dakota that drains into the Red River and drains north into Lake Winnipeg and eventually the Arctic Ocean.

Farmland, cropped land, and total land area of the various states and provinces are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Summary of Farmland, Cropped Land and Total Land in the NGP, by State and Province.
State/ProvinceTotal Farm Land
ha (acres)
Cropped Land
ha (acres)
Total Land Area
km2 (mi2)
North Dakota16,056,304
Total NGP95,478,632

The NGP has a general climate of cold winters, warm summers, and large sunlight hours. Rainfall is low for example Oyen, AB, 321 mm (12.7 in) in the short-grass area of a rectangular area from SW North Dakota and SE Montana up to SE Alberta and SW Saskatchewan. There is a gradient of increased precipitation as you go east and north and west from the driest area. An example of the precipitation on the east edge of the region near Winnipeg, in the Red River is 513.7 mm (20.2 in). Compared to many warmer areas of the world these low precipitation amounts could sustain little crop growth, however the cool springs and falls and cold winters result in lower evapotranspiration amounts and the majority of precipitation is received during the growing season so this allows reasonable crop growth and yields. Average temperatures, growing degree days, and frost-free period decreases as you go north over the whole region, and also as you increase in altitude near the mountains in the west in Montana and Alberta. Because of the cooler climate and short growing season the crops grown are mostly small grain cereals (e.g. wheat, barley and oats), oilseed crops (canola, sunflowers and flax), pulse crops (e.g. field peas, lentils and chickpeas, and cool season forages (e.g. alfalfa, clovers and grasses such as brome grass, timothy, fescues and wheat grasses). There are areas of grain corn and soybeans in the more southern areas where there are adequate heat units, and precipitation or where there is irrigation. Irrigation in the region is primarily from surface water diversions from rivers originating out of the Rocky Mountains on the west edge of the region, but there are some limited areas of pumping out of subsurface aquifers where there is adequate groundwater resources (e.g. the Carberry, MB area). There are important areas of sugar beet, potato, and dry bean production in higher precipitation areas in the Red River valley, and in irrigated areas in Montana, Alberta, North Dakota, and some potato areas in irrigated areas in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Alberta | Saskatchewan | Montana
Montana | North Dakota

Manitoba Saskatchewan Alberta Montana North Dakota