It is hard to imagine, what with the rainwater in the drainage ditches and the standing pools in low-lying spots, that Highmore has undergone severe drought.

But the freshest of rainfall that graced this central South Dakota cattle community last month gave the thirsty fields almost as much water as they received in all of last year's dry, disastrous growing season - about four inches. So bad was the drought of 1976 here that not one of the 311 farmers in Hyde County was unaffected and not a single spear of seven different crops was harvested.

Though the March moisture has eased conditions - the region needs continued rain to get through this summer - the impact of the nation's worst drought since the 1930s will be felt here for the next three, five, maybe 20 years.

The grasslands were grazed to a gray stubble, the remnants in some cases not even covering the brown earth, as cattlemen desperately sought to feed their livestock. Re-establishment of those now-desolate pasturelands will take several years, even with good rainfall.

Worse, the breeding herds that produced the livestock sold for income each year have been thinned, even liquidated, in cost-cutting moves by farmers faced with high feed cost and low sale prices. One, Don Faulstich, 42, reduced by one-half the 200-head breeding herd that had taken him 10 years to establish.

And millions of dollars in low-interest, 20-year federal disaster loans must be repaid. Some $4 million to $5 million already has been loaned to about 55 Hyde County farmers, and more loan applications are pending. Not to mention other drought-incurred losses: San Dancey spent $184,000 wintering some of his cattle in North Dakota and Wyoming and hauling expensive feed in from as far as 650 miles away for the remainder; Merle Ankrum sold his entire herd of 100 cows and 100 calves for $425 a pair (a cow and her calf), even though he had borrowed $500 to $600 from the bank against each pair.

"I don't know how long it's going to take to recover," said Faulstich. "We've got the worst coming. Our cattle herds are down, and that's how we make our living."

How they are down. On Feb. 1 there were 22,150 head of cattle in Hyde County, barely one-third of the 66,000 head of Feb. 1, 1976, according to the tax assessor's office.

"The economy of this county is cattle," said Bill Paynter, the county extension agent, and that dependence is weighing heavily now. Hyde County taxes its cattle and the county's public schools face a $150,000 tax loss - one-fifth of the school budget - as a result of the herd reductions. Plans for a vocational-agricultural addition to the high school have been postponed.

Cattlemen all over America have been cutting their herds - slaughter in 1976 reached a record - because of low prices that do not cover farm costs. But in no state were herds reduced to the extent of those in drought-hit South Dakota - almost 19 per cent from 4.5 million head on Jan. 1, 1976, to 3.65 million on Jan. 1 of this year. No county in South Dakota cut back like Hyde.

Merle Ankrum cut back all the way. A county commissioner, Ankrum, 46, has lived in Highmore all his life. He has 1,400 acres of grass and farmland and raises cattle. He gets them to 750 pound or so and sells them to feeding operations in other Midwestern states. That is the normal pattern here since the area does not grow enough corn to fatten cattle to the 1,100 to 1,200-pound slaughter weight.

"I held on until July of last year," Ankrum said, "and went clear out rather than go out and start buying feed." He sold the 100 pair at $425 a pair, despite the money borrowed against them, and the $200 in production cost in each calf. He didn't think cattle prices would cover the high cost of the feed he would have had to buy to winter the herd, feed he would have raised himself were it not for the drought.

Moreover, Ankrum was anxious to save his haystacks, carried from 1975, for a spring herd of 150 Herefords he bought for $150 each two months ago. He describes the 350-pound cattle as "still a little green," or underweight.

Ankrum says he lost $35,000 farming last year and now has $120,000 borrowed against his livestock, machinery and the equity in his land. A disaster loan application is pending.

Faulstich won't say exactly what it's cost him, only that in the past three years, drought, low prices and high costs have reduced the net worth of his farming operation - assets against liabilities - "by six figures." He has 2,150 acres and lives a half-mile from where he grew up. Two years ago, after 11 years of farming, he had a breed herd of 215, carefully selected, culled and bred to bear each year's money-producing calf crop.

He has kept the 100 best.

That means fewer calfs to sell until the herd is rebuilt, and thus less income - the general and long-term agony facing Hyde County.

"If [cattle] prices had been good, we could have afforded to buy feed" rather than reduce herds, Faulstich said, "but costs and prices - there just wasn't the economic justification. The effects are going to last for some time."

"We've used our pastures awful hard," Carl Ashdown was saying as his old blue pickup rattled by a bare field containing wisps of dead vegetation. "The wasy we got 'em so short, they're ate down to nothing."

The dugout waterholes are low - two feet where they shoulld be 12- to 18-feet deep. "It's got to keep raining," he said over a timpani of automotive rattles, "there is no question about it." Ashdown estimated it would take three to four years to re-establish his 2,300 acres of grasslands.

Ashdown, 45, works 3,300 acres with his 38-year-old brother Leslie. The farm has been in the family for 30 years.

Ashdown says yearly calf sales normally bring the farm $64,000, but last year the total was $25,000.

Ashdown says he and his brother have decided to stay with it this year. They managed to break even last year by selling off cattle and cutting expenses - doing little things like building farm equipment rather than buying it. But if things don't improve, they'll sell everything but the land, get jobs and wait for better times.

They hope to avoid the ultimate debt, borrowing against their land. That's what many others here have done, borrowed money against their investments to get cash to stay in business.

There is the sentiment here, too, that unless cattle prices rise to offset increasing costs, surviving the drought will have been for naught. "It doesn't do any good to raise a crop if you can't cover the costs," said extension agent Paynter. "A lot of people are in financial trouble."

"It's a disaster either way," says Ankrum. If prices don't change, "we might just as well have another drought."

Conceding that federal disaster loans are crucial to Hyde County farmers now, Faulstich wondered about the long-term effects of more debts and interest payments. "We need it to get through, but I wonder in the long run if it might just do us in," he said. His disaster loan application is pending.