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Cattle graze in Morton County, N.D., on Aug. 1, 2017. The area is among a portion of the state in exceptional drought. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Trying to hang on: Farmers and ranchers change plans to deal with drought

MOTT, N.D. — The dust blows off the combine in puffs as Brad Steiner points the air compressor wand. Steiner spent part of Aug. 1 servicing the combine because a little spattering of rain the night before stopped him temporarily from harvesting wheat — a bit of irony since the lack of rain has led to increased dust and a subpar crop.

Like other farmers and ranchers across the Dakotas and Montana, Steiner is making due the best he can as drought conditions continue to spread and intensify.

For Steiner, that means combining the little wheat that's in the fields in an attempt to have seed for next year. It's running less than 12 bushels per acre. Duaine Marxen, Hettinger County's North Dakota State University Extension agent, says that's in line with what he's heard across the county but far off a normal yield of 50 bushels.

For Alaina Browning in Garfield County, Mont., making it through the drought means moving cattle off burned pasture, rebuilding fences and supplementing feed. Browning and her husband, Travis, have 650 cow-calf pairs, and they lost most their pasture to the Lodgepole Complex Fire.

But Steiner and the Brownings aren't ready to quit, and neither are most producers around the region for whom 2017 has become an exercise in controlling expectations and doing the best they can with what they've been given.

"Basically, we're just trying to hang on to everything as long as we can," Steiner says.

'Pretty much a nightmare'

All of Hettinger County, N.D., is considered in exceptional drought.

"It's been pretty much a nightmare," Steiner says.

Now 53, he considers this drought the worst he's seen while farming since he was 18.

Wheat yields in the county are paltry but better than anticipated, and canola looks better than expected, Maxner says. The sunflowers and flax appear to be decent crops. How that happened no one is sure, as less than 3 inches of rain had fallen until a few weeks ago. About 2 inches fell in late July, and Steiner credits that for saving his sunflowers.

The corn, however, looks bad. Some barely made it to ankle high, if it came up at all. Good spots may be close to normal height, but many fields have the look of a bad haircut.

"If it makes an ear, I'll be surprised," Maxner says.

Steiner has made about 800 bales — a little more than half his normal. He had to drill a well because of water quality problems.

But he's working to get to next year. He's sold some cattle, and he'll turn his 130 cow-calf pairs onto stubble fields once he gets the crops off. He's already creep feeding, far earlier than usual, and he plans to wean calves six weeks early.

Those changes and efficiencies will be important to show bankers, Maxner says. Selling the new pickup in favor of something cheaper. Using less expensive options on the weeds. Saving what little wheat comes out of the combine for next year's seeds, so long as it passes germination tests. Foregoing the family vacation.

Weaning calves early should yield savings, says Gerald Stokka, associate professor of livestock stewardship at NDSU. As long as the calf has eaten feed, it should fare well if weaned even as early as 60 days, though facilities may need modification to hold smaller animals, he says. Earlier weaned calves have passive immunity from their mothers and shouldn't be higher risk than later weaned calves, he says.

By weaning the calf, the cow will need about 25 percent less feed.

"It makes a lot of sense from just a management standpoint," Stokka says.

Maxner says some of the hay around the county is pretty low quality, from sloughs and CRP. Cattle will need supplementation or other feed sources. Steiner has used a supplement in the past and may add distiller's grain this year.

Stokka says the crops that aren't worth harvesting may be good feed sources as long as they've been tested for nitrates. The variety of by-products available in North Dakota, including distiller's grain, beet pulp, beet tailings, also can help fill mineral needs, he says.

Maxner advocates planting a companion crop — he recommends sorghum sudan — to take advantage of any rains from now to frost.

Moving cows to feedlots, buying feed and culling more heavily than usual are other options, Stokka says.

"If you have extra hay, we would love it," Maxner says.

Congressional delegations from the drought-affected states have worked to allow ranchers to defer capital gains tax payments for a four-year period on the sale of their cattle. Other federal moves to help drought-stricken producers have been opening CRP to haying and grazing, putting more people in Farm Service Agency offices and opening up other emergency programs.

"We're trying to make every resource available to the ranchers as we go through this crisis," says Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Flood and hail and fire

The drought and the Lodgepole Complex Fire weren't the first disasters Browning and her family have had. The 2011 Musselshell River flood covered their fields in water for seven weeks and required major cleanup. The flood moved the river, so they had to change their irrigation systems on their hayland. Then last year, a major hailstorm set them back even further.

This year, no measurable precipitation fell after Jan. 1.

"We knew it was going to be a bad fire year if there was any lightning here," Browning says.

When the lightning did come, she and her husband were at a different fire — he's a wildland firefighter — and they raced home through a wall of flames to find that their six daughters and their home were safe. But all of their pasture in Garfield County was involved in the more than 270,000 acre fire, as was 400 of their acres in Petroleum County.

They've moved some cattle to a neighbor's irrigated land, and someone offered to take 170 pairs free of charge as long as grass holds up. The Brownings have neighbors who have taken cattle to feedlots and others who found pasture in Wyoming.

The drought conditions meant the Brownings were 400 bales short before the fire started, and they lost another 200 to the blaze.

But they've been heartened by the donations that have poured in from across the region, including hay, fencing supplies, vet supplies and food. People have donated labor, including drilling wells and building fences.

The Lodgepole Complex Fire is considered contained, but the devastation will be felt for years. There will be miles of fence to replace. The feeding season will be long. Cattle from the fire area may be more susceptible to dust pneumonia and other ailments. And Browning won't be surprised if they can't put cattle on their Bureau of Land Management pastures for at least a year. Cattle have been kept off land for three years after some fires. That happened to her family members who ended up selling their cows and getting oilfield jobs.

"That's a worst case scenario," she says. "We don't want to go there and think about that."

Browning expects her family to keep going. They're planning her daughter's wedding for Aug. 26 at the home ranch.

"We've made it through floods, hail and now fire," Browning says. "But we still plan to make it through."

Maxner says that attitude holds across state lines. Many people are nervous, but most will find ways to keep going.

"We don't ask for sympathy," Maxner says. "This is just part of living out in southwest North Dakota."

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