Late rains add to year of ‘I don’t knows’ for cattle producers

The sale barn operators at Napoleon, North Dakota, and a nearby rancher say producers face difficult choices after a disastrous cropping season, followed by several inches of rain.

The 900-pound steers, sold at Napoleon (North Dakota) Livestock on Sept. 2, 2021, were bringing a healthy $160 per hundredweight. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about how ranchers are coping with drought conditions. To read the first part, click here.

NAPOLEON, North Dakota — No one’s complaining about the rain in the central counties of North Dakota, surrounding Napoleon, North Dakota, but it isn’t always easy for a cowboy to know how to react.

In the last half of August, many ranchers in the Napoleon, North Dakota, area had more than 10 inches of rain, making the place look like June.

Partner George Bitz, 85, at Napoleon Livestock sale barn, said that after the hottest summer he can remember, recent rains are good news. He thinks ranchers are still going to sell more calves than usual this fall, but likely will delay sales form September until October and November.


The 2021 summer was the hottest and driest George Bitz, 85, has ever seen, he said. He said even 10 inches of rain in late August hasn’t yet filled waterholes that cattlemen in the region depend on, and some still are hauling water up to 15 miles, seven days a week. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

On Sept. 2, 2021, he talked to a man hauling water to cattle for up to 15 miles.

“That’s a long way to haul water, doing it every day — seven days a week,” he said. It’s also costly. I’m just hoping and praying every day that we get big rains that fill up the water holes.”

George Bitz, left, and son, Paul, in the foreground, look to catch bids at the regular Thursday sale at Napoleon (North Dakota) Livestock sale barn, which they own with Paul’s brother, Jim. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Up in the air

Taylor Grunefelder, ranches near Kintyre, North Dakota, in Emmons County, and goes on “daddy dates” with his daughter, Isla, 5 — the only daughter among his five children. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Taylor Grunefelder, 33, who ranches with his father, Jon, 56, near Kintyre, North Dakota, attended the Sept. 2, 2021, sale at Napoleon with is daughter, Isla, 5, on a “daddy date.”


Taylor Grunefelder, who ranches near Kintyre, North Dakota, in Emmons County, said he wasn’t sure on Sept. 2, 2021, whether he’d “hay” or chop drought-struck corn that was the worst he’s grown in his 10 year career. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Grunefelder and his father, Jon, have 2,500-head feedlot and 1,500 mother cows, and run a few yearlings in the summer. They background-feed a number of their own cattle, and custom-feed for others. The Grunefelders farm a little over 2,000 acres, mostly corn and a little hay.

They had thought about “haying” some of their corn fields, but with the rain they were thinking of chopping them.

“We don’t want to lay them down on wet ground, I guess,” Grunefelder said. “I think there’s a lot more people running creep feed this year, trying to help develop with pasture and get a larger weight on the calves . . . It’s going to make it a little easier to for people wanting to wean early” to sell calves and conserve grass for the mother cows.

The rain helps settle the dust, which would have been an issue.

The Napoleon Livestock cattle sales typically would have been 500 in July, but this year were 3,500 to 4,000 as cattle producers reduced cow herds by 10% to 25% in many areas, according to barn partner Paul Bitz. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek


“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Grunefelder said. People were running short on grass.

“The rain is going to throw another ‘I don’t know’ into it, because, I think a lot of people were planning on it to save pastures and feed," he said. “Now, maybe they can keep ‘em out there. Let’s see how the grass responds to the rain.”

Five Bitzes

Five Bitz men today are involved in the sale barn these days.

Five Bitz men today involved in Napoleon Livestock today include ,center, George Bitz, 85, flanked to the left by partner, Paul, 49, and Paul’s son, Dylan, 27. To the right of George is partner-son Jim, 53, and Jim’s son, Jacob, 22. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

George has been a partner since 1979. His sons Paul, 49, and Jim, 53, became partners in 1995. Paul’s son, Dylan, 27, and Jim’s son, Jacob, 22, work at the barn.

The Napoleon barn ranks second or third among the state’s livestock barns for cattle sold, Paul said. This summer the barn held sales every Thursday except the Fourth of July. In many years they’d sell 500 cattle total in July, and this year they sold more than 3,500.

Many cattlemen are in an “I don’t know” phase, deciding how they want to time sales of calves, and cull cows in response to 10 inches of rain in late August in central North Dakota. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“We sold a lot more cows — weigh-up cows, cleaning up the herd,” Paul said. “I think we’ll see a reduction in the cow herd, depending on the area, of 10% to 25%, because of the drought. We’re selling the ‘factories’ we get to sell the production out of. Our 2021 year we’re going to sell more cattle, but I’m nervous about 2022 and 2023, going forward.”

The cattle market improved as the summer went along.

Napoleon is in a mixed cattle and farming region. Many farmers ended up with 4- to 6-ton corn silage per acre. In the late 1980s drought they would have had nothing, George said.

Sales in September were settling down to normal numbers, Paul said.

“There are people all over the board — people who are going to wean early, people who who have sold cows. People who have ‘sent’ their calves, sold their calves,” he said.

Bigger producers with 200 to 500 cows may have weaned calves off the 70 oldest cows, and sold those cows, hoping to beat the cull cows early this fall. The yearling sales were ahead of schedule by a month.

“Some of the cattle that were contracted barely made base weight, their performance was not very good,” Paul said.

Paul Bitz, a partner with his father, George and brother, Jim, said farmer-cattlemen all over the board in how they’re sitting for winter feed. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Paul is thinking people with feedyards are betting that high corn prices are going to make high fat cattle prices. “If you look into the December, February, and April, futures are very bright,” he said, talking about $130 per hundredweight or better. "It’s been a long time since we’ve sold fat cattle for $130, so it better be for real this time.”

Paul Bitz, lower right, a partner with his brother, Jim, and father, George, at Napoleon Livestock at Napoleon, North Dakota, connects with buyers as Kelly Klein coaxes bids at the Sept. 2, 2021. Bitz thinks people with feedyards are betting that high corn prices this fall are going to make high fat cattle prices. Photo taken Sept. 2, 2021, Napoleon, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The sale barn sold the steers of about 900 pounds for $160 per hundredweight in the Sept. 2, 2021, sale. Paul figured the bulk were packer-contracted or hedged.

“It’s going to take $135 per hundredweight to $140 per hundredweight finished cattle prices to make that work (financially),” he said. “If we could have a good fall, and a late fall, we might be able to keep more of the herd than we originally thought in July. There’s some feed around and if we could have an easy winter that would sure make a big difference.”

He expects a reduction in the number of bred heifers in the spring.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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