What’s in the future for the livestock industry?

Farm Forum

While many are frustrated with dealing with calves in snowy, wet conditions, the reality that we are getting moisture is welcome. After last spring’s early start in the fields, the delay in getting the tractors rolling is offset by knowing that there is water to nourish the seeds once they are placed in the ground. That water also gives pastures a chance to recover from drought conditions.

This week’s crop condition report noted that only 2% of the crop is in the ground. Last year on this week 16% of the corn crop was planted, and the five year average is 7% planted at this point on the calendar. Current soil temperatures are nowhere near where they should be for planting seeds.

Many who aren’t connected to agriculture don’t realize the stress that weather conditions cause for ag producers. Getting stuck and having to shovel for 10 minutes really doesn’t compare to having to trudge through the muck to pick up a baby calf and carry it to the house to warm it up and to dry the little critter and repeating that several times a day. That doesn’t take into account the time spent watching the cows and providing feed to the herd. Such challenges make some refer to the livestock industry as a young man’s business. With an average age of 57, farmers and ranchers are finding it tough to convince young people to return to ag operations and take on those duties.

Last week, a summary of what was learned at meetings on “The Next Generation of Livestock Production” was shared at our Chamber Ag Committee meeting. SDSU Beef Feedlot Specialist Roger Ellis and Alison Kiesz from the S.D. Dept. of Ag shared what they heard at meetings held around the state since January.

Alison said, “We know that farming is very family dependent. Many times, young people would return to the farm after high school. That isn’t the case anymore.”

At the meetings, many vibrant producers in their 70s and 80s expressed their concerns. “What we hoped to do was spark some initial conversations so that producers could go home and start discussions to get the wheels turning. Many operations don’t have the margins to bring back family members without growing or changing the operation. And this will impact not only farming and ranching but the community with an economic impact affecting many businesses such as contractors, feed dealers, equipment dealers, elevators and bankers. What takes place in the future and how it changes is a vital piece of the ag industry.”

Alison noted that major concerns dealt with the land available, the loss of grassland, loss of acres to grow feedstuffs, the high cost of corn and DDGS, labor and financing.

Roger noted that the concerns are a national trend with fewer people involved and costs skyrocketing.

Profitability is key, of course. With land at record prices, how will livestock operations compete with row crop production. The drought has drastically reduced grazing acres which makes it tough to expand. “We won’t have $7 or $8 corn forever,” he noted. “But we don’t know how many years it will take for it to equal out for crop and livestock production.”

Labor will be a big issue, and that will be key to how the next generation continues the business. “Where do we find people and how can we afford added labor especially when some livestock operations are remotely located?”

“Maybe we are addressing the wrong audience,” he said. “We may need to bring community people in as this is not just an ag problem. Small and large communities and businesses all rely heavily on agriculture.” Tours of local ag operations and the beef plant may provide a better understanding of farming and ranching and may increase support.

Some of the things that Roger said were in progress is developing a list of feedlots in the tri-state area and their demographics. Another thing is look at ways to excite kids about ag, maybe with some high school mentoring programs. Having young people learn about how livestock is taken care of from those who have been in the field can provide a greater appreciation.

“It will take a combination of producers, the cattle industry and youth and the community to provide a bright future for livestock production,” Roger said.