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Published August 08, 2011, 03:37 AM

Ranchers sell cattle because of drought

PRATT, Kan. — Ranchers in parts of Kansas are hauling their spring cattle to auction barns because a drought and the brutal heat have made it difficult to provide the water and hay needed to keep the animals healthy, according to a state agency.

PRATT, Kan. — Ranchers in parts of Kansas are hauling their spring cattle to auction barns because a drought and the brutal heat have made it difficult to provide the water and hay needed to keep the animals healthy, according to a state agency.

Some auction markets are seeing more than triple the number of cattle at weekly sales than they typically have at this time of year, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service says. For example, 14,500 head of cattle were taken to sale rings in the Kansas cities of Pratt, Salina and Dodge City recently. Last year, those auction markets sold just 4,300 head.

The sales are necessary because the hot, dry weather has dried up ponds and pastures. The statistics service says more than half of the range and pasture conditions are in poor or very poor condition.

Some areas of southwest Kansas haven’t received a good rain for more than a year. Large cattle-producing areas such as the state’s Comanche County had just 1.49 inches at Coldwater from January through June, says Larry Ruthi, with the National Weather Service’s Dodge City office.

It also has been the driest July through July on record for Dodge City, with about 8 inches of rain falling during the period, Ruthi says.

And temperatures have reached past 100 degrees more than 30 days in a row for much of southern Kansas, with no significant rain forecast for the near future.

Problems maintaining the herd

Cattle pens have been packed at Winter Livestock in Dodge City, says Brian Winter, who owns several Midwest sale barns. About 5,500 head sold at a recent sale. In July 2010, market receipts for the month totaled 6,000.

“That’s pretty telling,” Winter says. “Some of these guys wouldn’t sell until the fall, but it’s just been so dry they can’t maintain their herd.”

The good news is that prices, for the most part, have stayed high, Winter said, because supplies haven’t rebuilt from the past decade’s droughts, demand for beef remains high and there’s a good export market.

But Mike Lewis, with Pratt Livestock, says calves weighing 600 pounds or less are bringing substantially lower prices.

Lewis, who has been at the sale barn since 1959, says he’s never seen numbers like this at this time of year. More than 5,500 cattle were sold at the market recently. A normal July sale usually brings just 1,000 head, he says.

“The numbers have increased weekly due to the lack of rain,” he says. “If it doesn’t rain, the exodus of cows and light calves will increase at a rapid pace. There is just no feed being raised in this country.”

The lack of hay means prices for the feed have doubled in the past year. Farmers are selling wheat straw for $70 a ton. Alfalfa traded for a high of $180 a ton in June, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency also reports 2011 could have the lowest U.S. hay acreage on record.

The Kansas Livestock Association is fielding calls from ranchers as far away as Texas who need grass.

“It’s not hundreds of cows, it’s thousands of cows,” says Matt Teagarden, the organization’s industry relations director said.

Waiting for his cattle to sell at a recent sale, Gary Sterneker, a Cunningham, Kan.-area rancher, says he’s running out of hay, with only a 30 percent yield this year. His ponds also are empty and he’s been using track hoes to dig deeper for water.

He brought 60 calves to sale recently, three months earlier than schedule, and he might bring more if rain doesn’t come soon.

“Everyone is in the same situation,” Sterneker says. “We’ll just be playing it by ear. Without rain in a couple weeks, we’ll have to do something different.

Moreover, he adds, “We don’t need an inch of rain. We need lots of inches of rain.”

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