Market moves lift spirits in SD ranch country

ALONG SOUTH DAKOTA HIGHWAY 34 AND U.S. HIGHWAY 212 -- It's coming into springtime and folks in western and northern South Dakota are more than ready for it.

Gary Cammack
Among the items for ranchers at the Cammack Ranch Supply in Union Center, S.D., is the "Dakota Dart" rifle that can deliver low-dose prescription drugs to cattle without having to round them up. The gun is very accurate at 40 to 60 feet, store owner Gary Cammack says. The technology has been around about five years but has become more popular in the past two years because it saves time and stress. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

ALONG SOUTH DAKOTA HIGHWAY 34 AND U.S. HIGHWAY 212 -- It's coming into springtime and folks in western and northern South Dakota are more than ready for it.

Optimism over improved cattle and sheep are tempered with the reality of dealing with a lot of mud -- and still a lot of snow in late March. Traditional places where ranchers calve and where the protection still was nonexistent in many areas as the creeks and draws were full of snow.

Here is a collection of recent conversations and images associated with the livestock business, accumulated along a homeward trail from Rapid City, S.D., to Watertown, S.D.


UNION CENTER, S.D. -- Gary Cammack (pronounced ka-MAK) and his wife, Amy, own Cammack Ranch Supply, a sprawling, multifaceted business that employs 10 to 15 people and dominates much of a mile on South Dakota Highway 34 in Union Center, S.D.


"We live and die with the cow business -- along with our customers -- and we've gone through two years of down turn in the cattle market," Cammack says. "Now, it's showing as much spark of life as we've seen in two years really."

Recent sales at area cattle sale barns have gone well, and the futures prices have perked up.

"Guys that bought calves last fall -- that investment looks like it's going to turn out really well for them," Cammack says.

All of this is vital to the Cammacks, a family that grew a major retail business from nothing to handling a trade area up to 300 miles in any direction. Besides the retail, they also realized their dream to own their own ranch, with a cow-calf operation that produces weaned calves. It's been a gradual progression.

Not long after marrying in 1972, the Cammacks bought the Stoneville (S.D.) General Store, about 12 miles north of Union Center. The business expanded from livestock salt and a few groceries to selling ranch supplies, tires, as well as designing and building pole buildings. Initially, Gary continued in a separate construction career full time, and in 1976, he spent a year on the Alaskan pipeline. This helped the young family to clear their debt and to purchase some investment property in nearby Rapid City.

In 1978, the Cammacks bought 320 acres of hay ground. In 1979, they bought a 4-year-old feed mill in Union Center, which was the start of Cammack Ranch Supply. (Union Center, population 65, was named for the Farmers Union Oil Cooperative, established there in the 1920s.)

Surviving through the 1980s credit crisis, the Cammacks made money the passionately pursuing ranch business.

They publish their own catalog, complete with items like a "calf sled," L&H branding irons, "Ranchhand" minerals and cattle-handling equipment. Among the biggest winners in collection of ranch items is the "Mega Panel," a 35-foot-long, 2-inch-thick wood panel ranchers like using in wind breaks, corrals, building liners and grain storage. Since 2002, the company has focused heavily on livestock watering systems.


The heaviest trade area is within 60 miles, but the trade area for corral building materials covers a five-state area, Cammack says.

"We also ship to Michigan, Florida, California, Washington and Texas," he says chuckling. "So we do business over a big area."

There are several interrelated reasons for longer-term optimism in the beef market, Cammack says.

"Right now, we have the smallest cow herd, I believe, since 1953," Cammack says. "Cow numbers have been dropping for some time. The dairy herd has been culled substantially, but I think that culling has slowed a bunch.

"Another thing that doesn't hurt anything is that Australia is starting to get rain and they're starting to repopulate their rangelands, too," he says. "If you can slow your exports and have low cattle numbers, you start to have signs of life."

A challenging calving season is evidenced by draws that were full of snow until late March.

"You could tell there's no protection because the deer are on the hilltops," Cammack says. "They had no place to go either." Commack hopes the calving situation will be mostly settled when the company hosts its 31st annual Trade Show and pancake feed April 15 to 16 in Union Center.



FAITH, S.D. -- Norman Delbridge and his wife, Susan, and son-in-law and daughter, Lee and Alisha Mottelson, work together on the Delbridge Ranch, south of Faith, S.D.

They manage about 250 cows in a cow-calf operation, keeping some replacement heifers and background-feed some for selling. Susan is slowly losing her sight, so she can't help outdoors these days.

The Delbridges sold heifers March 23 in Philip, S.D. Prices were better than they'd been for a long time, so the Delbridges were happy.

About two-thirds of their living is from the cattle, and about a third is from the family's trucking business -- moving cattle around the country and often feed. Norman was raised near Howes Corner, S.D., about 20 miles south of where they live now along South Dakota Highway 73. Howes Corner, at the intersections of South Dakota highways 73 and 34, is where his grandfather had homesteaded.

"I come up here in 1973," Norman says, "and in 1991, I got into the trucking business."

Norman often goes to Dawson, Minn., to get soybean pellets for ranchers in the area, as well as corn and hay.

The cattle business is looking brighter, but the Delbridges are only cautiously optimistic.

"Right now, compared to last fall, you're making a little money, but how long that continues is a question, your expenses are up so high -- fuel costs, repairs, whatever," Norman says.


Heifers started calving in early March, Delbridge says..

"It's taken a lot of feed," Delbridge says of the winter. "We had a good hay crop last summer, and we're feeding up a lot more than what I'd planned on."

The moisture situation going into spring offers some optimism, but Delbridge says he's anxious for the grass to start growing. The snow was going fast the last week of March, with only big drifts still there.

The cows stayed in winter pasture much longer than usual, and the Delbridges were planning to move them the last week of March.

As April approached, the cows often get too close to the still-high creeks.

"I don't know why it attracts them," Susan says.


FAITH, S.D. -- Scott Vance is co-owner with his father, Gary Vance, at Faith Livestock Commission, a regional icon with its "Prairie Oasis" slogan. The main building was constructed in 1964 by Scott's grandfather, Lawrence, and his partner, Nels Babcock. In 1982, Scott's father, Gary, added a ring scale and 30 feet to the front of the building.


The community went through a heckuva winter, but has enjoyed a better-than-expected spring, Scott Vance says.

"There were a lot of them that said they were dang sure tired of 'pioneer days' and could understand why some of (the real pioneers) packed up and just left," he says with a smile.

The weather challenges started in October with rains, followed by five snowstorms from November through Jan. 20 to 21 -- the biggest of the season. Faith was out of power that Thursday, and the city and surrounding areas and had to start conserving water. About the time they got power restored on Monday evening, the city ran out of water because the pipeline from Oahe Reservoir was out.

"With the snowstorm, we canceled our sale," Scott Vance says. "We had a generator and water on our ranch place north of Faith and wells, so we were able to take care of the livestock and transport them out there. We made it through, but there were a couple of days when it was 38 degrees in my house a couple or three mornings."

Generally, cattle in the area did remarkably well getting through the winter, Vance says. Some of that had to do with the fact that the cattle were "green and light" in the fall, when you could give them more protein.

"As tough and cold as the winter was, the cattle grew more than expected," he says, chalking part of that up to management.

It was challenging getting around to all of the places to feed cattle in the winter, and in late March, producers were facing flooding.

Producers tended to intentionally delay 2010 breeding and calving schedules because of three storms in mid-March of 2009. Last year, 60 to 70 percent of the producers would have been calving at mid-March, while as few as 30 or 40 percent had started by that time this year.


"We've gotten through March with the flooding remarkably well. Flooding was a lot worse last year than this year, and we've lost the majority of our snow, other than draws and creek bottoms," Vance says.

The market gradually has gotten better since the beginning of the year, and even a little before that. Faith Livestock had its regular sale March 15 and moved through 900 feeder cattle and more than 100 bulls.

Numbers are starting to slow down, but the market was higher. They sold a load of drug-free steers, weighing an average of 707 pounds, $113.50 per hundredweight. Two loads of "really green, black-and-baldie" steers that weighed an average of 619 pounds brought $121.25 per hundredweight average.

At a sale March 29, Faith Livestock sold 100 Hereford steers, averaging 622 pounds, for $124.50.

"It'll be definitely dollars higher than last year," Scott says, adding that the reason is the improved fat cattle market. "We went from $80 (-per-hundredweight) fat cattle to almost $95 today. Since before Thanksgiving, we're probably $10 or higher on the fat cattle market, which is certainly pushing feeders well over $10 higher than last fall."


DUPREE, S.D. -- "It's been long, I guess -- cold and wet," says Jess Starr, who works in a family cow-calf and background-feeding operation with his parents, Vernon and Sue Starr.

The winter takes extra feed, he says.

"We've got a couple hundred cows that we're feeding now that we hadn't planned on feeding any hay, but we've been feeding them since after Christmas," Starr says. "We usually graze them out on the range."

Whatever comes in 2010, Starr doesn't expect it to equal the trauma of 2009.

A tornado came through just before 6 p.m. May 14.

"We were vaccinating some replacement heifers over there when it hit," Jess Starr says.

He, his dad, the hired man and another kid who had a chute on the place tried to hurry to finish the last 12 heifers when the wind and hail storm came up just before 6 p.m.

"We all weathered it outside there in the corral, so kind of hunkered down in the chute," Starr says.

The storm tore the roof and side off their barn, tipped over horse trailers and trees. It took the family's garage off the foundation, picked up some 30 of the ranch's 600-pound steel feed bunks in one lot and dumped them on some vehicles. It seems it picked some of them up again and threw them another mile. One of the trash containers or feed bunks hit a communication tower that had been there for 50 years. It took the roof off his parents' house, too.

"It pretty much mangled us -- tore the fences down. Windbreaks," he says. "It tore all the shingles off the roof of the farm house so daylight peeked through and broke all the windows."

Vernon notes that everything that was broken from the tornado is stronger than ever.

"We're not complaining right now," he says. "Our moisture situation is good. We were kind of concerned about the winter, but since about March 10, we'd have as good a weather as we could ever expect."

"The snow melted off in an orderly fashion. If we can stay, away from the spring blizzards, it'll look pretty dang good. The good Lord'll stretch us only as far as we can stretch."


WATERTOWN, S.D. -- Stephanie VanWell says lambing has been going along nicely at the Dion VanWell sheep operation, south of Watertown, S.D.

"He started with 3,000 ewes, but it seems like trailers keep backing up here," Stephanie says.

Dion says he's added about 200.

"I thought I was going to sneak them in without her finding out," Dion says, joking.

He found some ewe lambs at the Hub City auction that were ultrasound-bred, and he couldn't pass them up. Some other stock came from Newell, S.D.

Stephanie's job is making sure all of the pens in certain barns have feed and the mothers get medications after they're lambed. As the lambs hit the ground, she gets them into pens, and Dion comes along to make sure they're nursing. The tails are banded for docking and the new lambs are paint-branded and put into pens of 25 so the mother and lamb have the same number.

As of March 30, the VanWells had 1,800 lambed and another 1,300 to go.

"We're over the hill," Dion says, acknowledging the season has been more enjoyable because this year's lamb prices are exceptional.

"From a year ago, prices are $1.15 to $1.20 for the fat lambs now," Dion says. "A year ago, they were 90 to 95 cents."

The VanWells buy about 45,000 lambs a year and raise another 5,000, for a total crop of about 50,000 market lambs.

"When the market gets like this, I bought some 68-pound lambs at $1.46 per pound average," he says. "There were some 60-pound lambs brought $1.65 at Tripp, S.D. It'd be fun if they'd make money like this all of the time. Last year, we sold some lambs in February for 85 cents."

The "ethnic trade" right now is "incredible," Dion says, noting that because of holiday needs, some are buying 50- to 60-pound lambs for slaughter, rather than taking them to a typical market weight of 140 to 155 pounds.

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