Northern ND cattle producers dealing with 'pretty devastating' drought

Jenny Schlecht Forum News Service
Farm Forum

RUGBY, N.D. — Richard Hoffart has about 210 cows, but he anticipates he may sell down by fall.

“I’m hoping we can keep 120, 130 at least,” he says.

But that’ll depend on how many bales of hay he can put up this summer. With dry conditions on his Pierce County ranch, that isn’t looking good. Most fields are producing only about half of normal, he says. An oats field he planted for hay is yielding a bale an acre when it should be giving him close to four.

“It’s pretty devastating up here,” Hoffart says.

The U.S. Drought Monitor on Aug. 1 showed 1.81% of North Dakota in moderate drought, with a large chunk in northern Pierce County in the north-central part of the state. Benson County also had a large piece in moderate drought, with smaller portions in neighboring counties. Abnormally dry conditions cover 22.13% of North Dakota, mostly in the north with a smaller patch in the west.

Yolanda Schmidt, North Dakota State University Extension agent for Pierce County, doesn’t believe the Drought Monitor is completely accurate in her county. Particularly in the southern part of Pierce County, conditions, she believes, are more than abnormally dry. Some corn in those areas is only 3 feet tall. To Hoffart, it’s not as bad as the drought of 1988, but he says it’s close.

Extension agents in the northern counties said the dry conditions this year have been exacerbated by conditions in the previous two years. Previously drought-stressed and overgrazed grasses have had no way to recover, Schmidt says. Plus, the cold spring meant producers had to feed longer before pastures were ready, and even when pastures were ready, the grasses stayed shorter than normal.

“Once they head out, that decreases their total forage production as well,” she said.

Schmidt says buying feed may not be financially feasible for all producers. Paying for cattle to be fed elsewhere might be possible, Hoffart says.

“We’ve talked about early weaning in some cases. We’ve talked about alternative feed sources. Of course, that’s dependent on cash-flow situations,” Schmidt says.

Hoffart thinks there would be hay that could be cut on Conservation Reserve Program or other conservation program acres, but so far he hasn’t heard anything to suggest that will be a possibility.

Culling also is a possibility, but many ranchers already cut the lower ends of their herds in the past two years.

“Now they might have to start culling some of the good ones, too, unfortunately. And that’s hard to see and hard to say to somebody,” Schmidt says.

Kevin Heilman, co-owner of Rugby Livestock, says the weigh-up cow sales have already been larger than this time last year, and most of the cows are ones that wouldn’t usually be sold off this time of year.

“There are guys who are thinking they’re going to have to sell off half their cows if they don’t find some hay,” Heilman says.

Neither Schmidt nor Heilman has heard of anyone selling out completely, but they know it could happen.

“I think some of our older producers who are maybe getting closer to retirement may do that,” Schmidt says.