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Calves push into the sale ring at the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange west barn in Dickinson, N.D., on Oct. 24, 2017. Big runs of calves have come to western North Dakota and Montana sale barns earlier than normal due to drought conditions. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Drought pushes early calf sales in western ND

DICKINSON, N.D. — The crew at Stockmen's Livestock Exchange tossed out bags of sawdust after the first few groups of calves went through the ring at the Stockmen's West barn. There was no point in spreading the sawdust around — there would be plenty of hooves to do that.

By the time the Tuesday, Oct. 24, sale was over, the barn had sold 3,755 calves. Larry Schnell, managing partner of Stockmen's Livestock, expected about 5,500 calves to sell at Stockmen's East barn on Thursday, Oct. 26.

"That's about 500 to 1,000 head each day more than what we normally would sell this time of year," Schnell said.

It's a similar story to the west, at Miles City Livestock Exchange in Miles City, Mont., and to the east, at Kist Livestock in Mandan, N.D. Due to drought conditions that limited feed supplies, big runs of calves have started weeks to months earlier than normal.

Drought conditions continue to ease across the region. While nearly half of North Dakota was in extreme or exceptional drought on July 25, the U.S. Drought Monitor released on Oct. 26 showed the state no longer had land in those two most serious categories. Severe drought was reported in 3.15 percent of the state and moderate drought in 33.68 percent. An additional 43.47 percent was considered abnormally dry.

The Drought Monitor showed 5.92 percent of South Dakota in extreme drought, 12.72 in severe drought, 30.42 percent in moderate drought and 24.09 percent abnormally dry. In Montana, 14.9 percent of the state is considered in extreme drought, 26.6 percent in severe drought, 31.87 percent in moderate drought and 10.29 percent abnormally dry.

Schnell said Stockmen's Livestock Exchange has been busy since dry conditions started. Pairs started selling in June, and calves started in late July. This is the normal time of year for calf marketing, but the big sales have started earlier than normal.

Miles City Livestock Exchange sold more than 6,200 head on Oct. 24. At Kist Livestock, field representative Matt Lachenmeier expected about 6,000 calves for the Oct. 25 sale. The prior week's sale had 4,700 calves.

But Schnell said there is a "silver lining in a very dark cloud."

"We're seeing a market that is appreciably better than any of us thought it would be," he said.

"It's pretty good in light of all the factors," said Bart Maged, owner of Miles City Livestock Exchange. "It's never going to be what it was two or three years ago."

The barns also have seen more cull cows coming through the ring than normal. Schnell said producers are selling down until they get to the number of cattle for which they have feed.

Kist Livestock has gone to holding separate cow sales and calf sales every week. The Monday, Oct. 23 cow sale had 900 cows, which Lachenmeier said was probably 300 to 350 more cows than would sell in a normal year at the same time.

"It seems like when guys sell their calves, the next week we see their cows," he said.

Bulls also are being culled at a higher rate than most years, and Lachenmeier said he thinks it's a function of the strong calf prices. Producers may be planning to invest in new genetics for the next breeding season.

Maged, said there's "a little higher percentage" of cull cows being sold in Miles City, but most producers are holding onto as many cattle as they can. In his 27 years at the barn, "we've avoided the all-out drought liquidation phase."

Recent rainfall helped, Maged said.

"We were in desperate and dire situations," he said. "It bought us some time."

Schnell said the biggest runs of calves likely will last until around Thanksgiving, which is normal. But he thinks sales will start to taper off in January, with few calves moving in the new year.

That, however, is dependent on feed supplies. Some people may find that paying $150 to $180 a ton for grass hay "just doesn't pencil out," Schnell said. Some ranchers have sent their cattle elsewhere for the winter to places drought didn't shrivel the grasses.

Dustin Ceynar of Arnegard, N.D., was at the Oct. 24 sale to sell his calves, about three weeks earlier than normal. He said he was fortunate: He had hay leftover from last year and his pastures were in good shape from fall 2016 rains.

"If we didn't have that carryover, we'd have been in tough shape," he said.

Ceynar made it through the summer by putting out creep feed for the calves, and he got additional help from a neighbor who let him graze his cattle on his cropland.

Maged believes the outlook for the beef industry is positive.

"We get some moisture here over the winter, we're right back in business," he said.