Ranchers hoping for greener pastures

FORT PIERRE, S.D. -- Cattle producers throughout the upper Great Plains country are anxious for April moisture, after a winter largely devoid of snow.

Paul Rydeen of Rydeen Farms at Clearbrook, Minn., says his ranch needs moisture to revive pastures.

FORT PIERRE, S.D. -- Cattle producers throughout the upper Great Plains country are anxious for April moisture, after a winter largely devoid of snow.

Troy Richter and his wife, Dawn, ranch with their family near Quinn, S.D., about 60 miles east of Rapid City. Richter says they're concerned about getting moisture to green up pastures and grow their hay crop.

"It's (always) in the back of your mind," Troy says.

The Richters and their family have a cattle herd of about 350 red and black Angus mother cows and 16 Charolais bulls. Dawn says they've been able to graze cattle through the winter, and have been supplemental-feeding cattle at about three-quarters of the normal amount.

"The grass doesn't have a lot of protein, so we supplement it with ear corn and hay. We're feeding every day," she says.


About 110 miles to the east, Willie Cowan, field man with Fort Pierre Livestock for the past 35 years, says it's been a good winter, but cattle need moisture.

"We've had some good weather this winter," Cowan says. "The cattle have gained good; the cattle look good. Now we need moisture for spring. Us ranchers, we always worry about green grass, and plenty of grass. We have about as much feed in this region as we ever have, and the cheaper corn made a difference to all of us cattle people."

Dams and ponds needed for water are still in pretty good shape, Cowan says, and producers are financially strong. Cattle prices for calves have fluctuated, but mostly have been good.

"They're 'dollaring-out' at $1,500 to $1,900 (per animal), and that's a lot of money," he says. "Some of the bred (cows) had been selling from $2,500 to $3,100, depending on what they are."

The fluctuating cattle prices have been offset a bit by the favorable cost of fuel.

"Every day we have to drive to cattle or haul feed to cattle," Cowan says. "The price of fuel really makes a difference to us -- $2 a gallon diesel makes a difference, because the tractors suck up a lot of fuel in a day."

An eye to the sky

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration projects the chances for temperatures in April to be equal to normal for all of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and eastern Montana. NOAA's precipitation probability is 40 percent more likely to be below normal in the Red River Valley to the east, and 33 percent more likely to be below-normal for the month.


NOAA's three-month outlook calls for higher temperatures through the entire region, nearly to the Rocky Mountains in Montana.

Melissa Smith, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service regional office in Rapid City, S.D., says the cattle grazing areas of western South Dakota aren't in dire straits. Last July was extremely dry, but storms in August and at the end of September along the eastern side of the Black Hills brought 3 to 5 inches of rain.

Smith says over the winter, the region hasn't received "anywhere close to our average," and says the paltry, feathery snow wasn't even enough to knock down last year's grass stubble. The winter also brought above-average temperatures.

"A lot of frost has started to come out of the ground, which is earlier than typical," Smith says. "We get some windy, windy days, and when the soil is thawed it dries up what was left in the ground from the fall."

At South Dakota State University's Cottonwood research station, near Philip, S.D., for example, the National Weather Service reporting site shows 19.5 inches had fallen from October 2014 through March 2015, compared with a 30-year average of 31 inches.

"March typically is their snowiest month, but so far they've only had an inch compared to 8 inches in a normal year, which is not a good thing," Smith says.

Water content is typically a 10-to-1 ratio -- 10 inches of snow for an inch of moisture. But because the winter has been so cold, the ratio is about 30-to-1. From Oct. 1 to March 31, there has been 1.23 inches of precipitation in Philip, compared with a normal of 4.5 inches.

Looking for moisture


Across the region, producers all seem to be looking for moisture.

In eastern Montana, Randy Gorman of Wibaux, says his 104-head cow-calf operation could use some rain.

"We've had a semi-open winter," he says. "We've had some snow, some runoff a couple of times and it melted off early and has filled the dams, but we probably need some more before the spring crop gets a cookin'. It's pretty dry right now."

With the warmer winter, cows put more energy into their calves, so some are saying the calves are coming earlier and bigger than expected.

In northwest Minnesota, Paul Rydeen of Clearbrook, says he's had an excellent calving season, with about half of it complete on March 23, but also says he's concerned about moisture. He says he didn't use much less feed than normal, despite the perceived mild winter.

It's the moisture he's concerned with.

"I don't see water in the lower areas, the potholes," Rydeen says.

Last summer, his area had adequate moisture to bring in a decent hay crop, but there were areas that missed the rains, which he relied on.


In southwest Minnesota, Jerry Reisch, who organizes cattle sales at Pipestone Livestock Market Inc., and conducts hay sales in Luverne and Pipestone, says cattle farmers he deals with are concerned about moisture.

"It's not like cow-calf country (with the pasture dependence) but some guys over-grazed a bit last year, so they're concerned about a kick-start of moisture this year," Reisch says. "I've told these guys they'd better start buying some hay and putting it away, in case we don't get some rain."

There's a lot of good-quality grass hay available for $85 to $100 per ton, and some good alfalfa hay at $125 per ton. Reisch, who has cattle custom-fed in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, says optimism remains strong, with cow-calf pairs bringing $3,200 in his area recently.

Better prepared

Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, says it appears the biggest chance for ongoing dry conditions in the state exist mainly in central and eastern South Dakota. She thinks there is decent subsoil moisture in the western part of the state.

"My sense is the majority of operations have back-up systems in place, either wells or rural water, for livestock," Anderson says. "That's true, particularly since the extended drought in western South Dakota in the early 2000s."

Cowan says the lack of winter moisture is not a big deal -- yet.

"We need some runoff, and water. But it's got a lot of time and we can get a lot of storms yet," Cowan says. "Everybody's calving now, so everybody's looking up, checking the weather, all of the time."


Mature cows have their calves in late March and through mid-April, or get them on grass for less disease exposure and greater access. Two-year-old heifers typically are calved earlier because they need more attention and time.

He says the region doesn't want anything like the historic early storm Atlas on Oct. 4, 2013, that took thousands of cattle out of the region's herd.

"We don't need any of that bad weather to kill a bunch of calves," Cowan says. "We can see some bad blizzards between now and green grass."

The Richters know all about strong storms. Their ranch lost about 110 cows and 50 to 60 calves in the Atlas blizzard -- about a third of the herd. The Richters now are back within 20 head of what they had before the storm. They got help through the Livestock Indemnity Program, and strong cattle prices.

"If it hadn't been for that, ... we'd probably not been in business," Troy Richter says.

Richter uses white, Charolais bulls on black and red Angus cows. They calve around April 1. Besides rural water, the Richters have their own back-up protection. Both have off-ranch employment -- he is a programmer for Golden West Telecommunications, and she works with a local ambulance service.

Cowan, 77, says he's learned to keep the big perspective in mind, regardless of what the weather brings.

"It's nice to live where we live," he says. "The air is clean, the people are good. I think that's what we all need to put foremost in our minds is how good the people are and how good it is to just live in this kind of country."


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