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Published October 15, 2012, 10:27 AM

Downsizing in drought

My husband and I recently made a tough decision regarding our flock of sheep.

By: Rita Brhel, Agweek

YANKTON, S.D. — My husband and I recently made a tough decision regarding our flock of sheep. It was to either greatly reduce the number of animals we have or sell the whole lot. We had been teetering on the edge of this decision all summer. And we literally made the final decision a moment before the livestock trailer pulled off our property, sorting a selected number of ewes back into the dry lot.

A drought like this, where there is no historical model, except perhaps Dust Bowl fears, makes for hard farming decisions. Will we have enough pasture to last through fall so we won’t have to use all our hay stores before the spring growth begins? As do most farmers, I have an emotional investment in my livestock as much as a financial investment.

I didn’t want to let the pasture sit idle when it could be feeding animals, and I’m rather attached to my sheep, which also has been profitable the past few years. Well, until the past few weeks when fat lamb prices dropped into the 70-cent range. I’m glad that we grass-finish, because grain-finishers aren’t going to make a dime.

But I also didn’t want to make a decision to keep ewes if, by our pasture quality, it was just ridiculous. Looking out into the pasture, they don’t look bad — we’ve tried to be smart about reducing stocking rates and increasing rest periods in our rotation system — but walking out there, we noticed there was a lot of crunching from dried-up grass under our shoes. So I conferred with my father, who is on the Board for the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition. He knows a little of what he’s talking about and he said that, yes, the pastures should hold up if we’re careful with the rest period and stocking rate. So we kept some of our sheep that we were going to send down to the sale barn.

Did we make the right decision? I don’t know. It depends on how much longer this drought lasts. We should be good through the usual green-up next April, but the big question is what will this winter look like and what if the drought continues? I was never a big believer in whole doom-and-gloom forecast of global climate change; I had always figured it was all a part of the natural cycles of weather. But now, I’m hearing more from scientists about how this drought is only the beginning and that the whole climate of the Midwest is going to change. I wonder if we’ll look back at this time in 50 or 100 years and remember when we used to plant corn and soybeans, while we’re looking at some new crop that can withstand hotter, drier weather. Funny, there are no end-of-the-world scenarios that have the apocalypse rooted in drought — doesn’t make as great of a movie as asteroids and volcanoes, I guess.

I can tell our pastures must look good compared with most in the area, because we’ve had a number of inquiries about whether we’d consider renting out our pasture for horses or cattle. The immediate cash flow is inviting, but I worry about what that could do to our pasture quality. The other day, I drove past a herd of cows grazing and, at first glance, thought they were dairy cows. They were too skinny to be beef cows.

My parents, whose ranch runs several hundred head of sheep, cattle and goats, are downsizing as well. Most of the goats have been sold and, while they usually grain-finish their lambs to about 120 pounds, they’re cutting them short in the feedlot to save on feed. They did decide to keep their replacement heifers, however, while they are not planning to keep replacement ewe lambs. They usually have a waiting list for their replacement ewes, but not so much this year.

People are scared. They don’t know how long pastures will last, whether hay will be affordable or available, how high grain prices are going to go or how market prices will hold up under all this pressure. Do you?

Editor’s Note: Brhel is a correspondent for the Yankton (S.D.) Daily Press & Dakotan. This piece originally appeared in the Press & Dakotan.