Drought cuts cattle numbers in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota

North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana showed significant declines in cattle numbers, with decreases in specific categories varying from 2% to nearly 20%.

A black Angus stands by a fence.
Drought took a toll on cattle numbers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana
Agweek file photo

The culling of beef cattle that resulted from the 2021 drought in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota is reflected in the states’ cattle inventory reports released by USDA.

All three states showed significant declines in cattle numbers, with decreases in specific categories varying from 2% to nearly 20%. In South Dakota, for example, on Jan. 1 2022, there were 270,000 calves weighing under 500 pounds, which was 18% fewer than on Jan. 1, 2021, USDA said.

In Montana, beef replacement heifers, 500 pounds and over, declined by 13% to 330,000 head during that same period, and in North Dakota, all cattle on feed, fed for slaughter in North Dakota feedlots, declined by 20%, to 39,000 head between Jan. 1, 2021 and Jan. 1, 2022, the agency said.

The reduction in cattle and calf numbers in North Dakota had been anticipated as ranchers reduced herd numbers because of short pasture and feed supplies, said Julie Ellingson, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association executive vice president.

Whether the number will rebound this year will depend, in part, on the amount of rain that falls, she said. While eastern North Dakota received moisture last fall and snow this winter, the western part of the state still is dry.


Western South Dakota also is dry and will need rain to rejuvenate pastures, said Eric Jennings, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association president.

Ranchers in the western part of the state started selling cow-calf pairs at auctions in June 2021 as pastures dried up and feed supplies grew tight. Meanwhile, ranchers also sold heifers that they typically would have kept back as breeding stock.

“An awful lot of those got sent to town,” Jennings said.

Pastures in western South Dakota, where it has been an open winter and remains dry, will need rain or more cows will be sold this spring, he predicted.

“Everybody is trying to get by, hoping we get rain,” Jennings said. “I would think if it doesn’t rain by Memorial Day, they will start selling off a lot of cows.”

In Montana, the bulk of the herd reduction in 2021 was in the eastern part of the state where the drought in the state was the most severe, said Jay Bodner, Montana Stockgrowers Association executive vice president.

Reduction in cattle numbers in the hardest hit drought areas of Montana were as much as 35%, Bodner estimated. Sales of cattle increased significantly during the summer of 2021 and continued into the fall, he said.

The decline in cattle numbers in Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota, is part of a cyclical decline in the total U.S. livestock inventory, said Tim Petery, North Dakota State University livestock marketing economist.


The reduction in not only cattle, but also sheep and swine, has resulted in lower meat supplies, he said. At the same time, export and domestic demand is the strongest it has been in several years, he said.

“That bodes well for prices for the next several years,” Petry said. “We’re going to see higher prices this year and even higher prices the next couple of years.”

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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