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Most parts of this hay field outside of Richardton, N.D., hasn't grown enough to cut by June 5, 2017. All of North Dakota and large areas of South Dakota and Montana are abnormally dry or in drought conditions, leading ranchers to sell off cattle to make up for low feed supplies. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Drought conditions lead to herd trimming

RICHARDTON, N.D. — As drought spreads across the upper Great Plains, some cattle producers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are reducing their herds.

Joe Vetter, a field representative for Herreid Livestock, calls the situation in northern South Dakota "very grim."

"There's virtually been no moisture, even starting in the month of April," he says. "Ten or 15 hundredths, maybe."

The latest Drought Monitor, released June 8, shows all of North Dakota in at least abnormally dry conditions, with 13.54 percent in severe drought and 73.92 in moderate drought.

South Dakota's worst conditions are to the north, where 11.37 percent of the state is in severe drought. Another 39.15 percent is in moderate drought, and 28.4 percent is abnormally dry.

Montana's worst conditions are to the east, with moderate drought conditions on 16.56 percent of the state and abnormally dry conditions on 20.13 percent.

Minnesota is a little better off, with only 9.69 percent of the state in moderate drought, all toward the north, and 30.33 percent in the northwest considered abnormally dry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Weekly Weather and Crop Bulletin listed 35 percent of North Dakota pastures, 40 percent of South Dakota pastures and 24 percent of Montana pastures as in poor or very poor condition.

Vetter says hay crops already are too far gone to bale in some places.

"It's past the critical stage on the grains," he says. "There are people who would have liked to have gotten some hay with their grains, but it was already heading out."

Herreid Livestock's sale last week had about three times the butcher cattle as this time most years. At least half of the 500 pairs were sold because of drought conditions, and a good chunk of the feeder cattle were heifers that had been intended for replacement.

"The cattle are on the move," he says.

It's a similar story in North Dakota. People are selling replacement heifers, cull cows and older pairs, trying to conserve what grass they have. People in the industry expect calves to be weaned earlier and cows sold off if conditions persist.

Wishek Livestock, in south central North Dakota, sold 800 head on June 5, compared to a normal June sale of about 200, says manager Doug Kilen.

Matt Lachenmeier, fieldman for Kist Livestock in Mandan, N.D., says the barn's June 7 sale had 4,000 head, more than double a typical June sale. While the feeder market and weigh-up markets remain strong, the market for pairs has taken a hit, he says. Pairs that were bringing $2,600 a few months back now are worth only about $1,900.

"It's pretty hard to let those things go for what they're bringing," Lachenmeier says.

The market remains pretty strong with good demand for beef at Miles City, Mont., Livestock Commission Company, owner Burt Maged says. Eastern Montana hasn't been quite as dry as North Dakota and South Dakota, but they still are in need of rain, he says.

The bigger issue for Montana cattle producers may be the hay crop. Hay often gets trucked in from areas to the east of Miles City — areas that right now are too dry to get a crop, Maged explains. Recent dry years haven't allowed for much build up of hay supply there.

Driving around the outskirts of Richardton, N.D., on June 5, Dustin Hueske points out what should have been a hay field, but the grasses barely made it to ankle high. On another field, a rancher already has turned out cows to graze, knowing that it's too late for the grasses to recover. Hueske points to a pasture, now yellow.

"That was green the other day," says Hueske, who has 250 head of cows and about 200 yearling heifers north of Richardton. "This is about the worst I've seen it."

Hueske's place hasn't browned up as much as his neighbors. With the oil industry speeding back up, he's heard of western North Dakota farmers and ranchers considering selling out and getting on with oil companies.

"If we don't get any rain in June, it's going to be scary," he says.

A tough winter in western and central North Dakota forced some ranches to start feeding earlier than usual, reducing hay and feed supplies they had to carry over, Hueske says.

The North Dakota Department of Agriculture has announced a hotline for ranchers affected by the drought. People who need hay or pasture or who have hay or pasture available can call 701-425-8454 to help facilitate sales.

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring in a June 7 statement said his office is requesting Farm Service Agency allow emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program land.

"If it doesn't rain within another two weeks, you're going to start seeing guys cut into their herd, selling the young stuff," Lachenmeier says.

Vetter asks ranchers considering selling pairs to have their animals paired up and tagged appropriately to make sorting easier for sale barn staff.

But even though conditions are looking poor right now, Vetter says there is some optimism that rains could save millet, sorghum and corn crops and provide feed down the road.

"There's always hope," he says.

Likewise, Hueske says people in the Richardton area are doing their best to keep going.

"It makes you a better person, I guess," he says.

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