South Dakota cattle producers already dealing with tough conditions marked by the COVID-19 market meltdown have another issue with which to contend: their third year of low conception rates in cow herds.

The rate of open cows just in the south-central part of the state is running from 20% to 50%, depending on the operation, which is much higher than normal.

Cody Moore is a cattle producer and co-owner of Winner Livestock Auction. He says the poor breed back in the herds has been reflected in their sales the last couple of months, with more weigh-up cows being sold. He says it’s a trend they are finding at many of the sale barns in central and western South Dakota.

“I don’t know if it was because of the weather the last couple of years, which took a toll on the cows, but it seems like there’s a lot more open cows. Maybe a lot of people didn’t sell their older cows last year, but it seems like we’ve sure had a lot of weigh-ups in the last couple months.”

He thinks it may also be tied to more producers breeding heifers as he cites their heifer runs were much lighter than normal after the first part of 2020.

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Frank Volmer is also an owner at Winner Livestock Auction. He blames the poor conception rates on the cows being under more stress, tied to weather.

“I still think it goes back to two winters ago. We had a terrible tough winter and them cows just didn’t make it through in very good and then last summer we got pretty dry at the wrong time and so cattle were not in very good condition,” he says.

Moore concurs: “The last couple springs have been awful wet out in this country and I don’t know if that had a toll on them during the breeding season, then getting hot and it did get kind of dry out here in the later summer.”

Volmer says it also has to do with the fall feeding program cows have undergone the last couple of years. With the open weather, producers try to save on feed costs by having cows graze on lower quality cornstalks as long as they can. He says that is contributing to their poor body condition as they go into the breeding season.

“If the cows go downhill of course they don’t breed as well, and they don’t raise their calf as well. Now days, the combines we have are so good that they don’t leave much corn behind. So, I feel a person has to mange their cornstalks a lot more now than they used to have to,” he says.

The tight margins in the cattle business the last few years has, according to Moore, forced more producers to put cows on stalks or pasture for a longer period of time. He says that is true even this year with abundant feed supplies in the Tripp County area.

“There’s hardly any cows getting fed in this area. There’s a lot of feed, a lot of cows you see out grazing either on cornstalks or they got any roughage that’s out there you know they’re still grazing them out as long as they can,” he says.

During the tough winters Moore also contends the hay probably wasn’t high enough in feed quality for the cows either. They needed more protein in the diet and so their body condition suffered.

Moore says other areas of cattle country that are being affected by the expanding drought are likely to see more open cows in the future. He says they have a shortage of feed in those areas, which is reflected in the large amounts of hay they’ve been selling at their auction the last two months and shipping to those areas. Producers in those areas are likely to see more open cows in the future. The end result will be a smaller calf inventory in 2021 and maybe beyond.