Very dry year cuts hay, silage supplies
Bill Klesalek, 70, and his wife, Connie, in rural Mandan, N.D., run about 350 cows and are cutting back the herd because of dry conditions in 2020. Aided by off-farm employment for 40 years, Bill also runs Klesalek Excavation in Mandan and Connie does child care at the ranch for two young sons of medical doctors, 20 miles away in Bismarck/Mandan.
MANDAN, N.D. — Bill Klesalek faced drought in 2020, but hopes the feed he saved from the wet 2019 will get him through this winter.
Two years ago he was up to 500 cows, but has cut 350 cow-calf pairs, and may cut back to 200 in the next two years. He background feeds another 200 calves in the winter. His own herd is a mix of red and black Angus, with some “SimAngus,” a cross between the Angus and Simmental.
He uses mostly red Angus bulls and artificially inseminates replacement heifers with black Angus.
The Klesaleks harvest 500 acres of alfalfa. A neighbor plants about 200 acres of corn for silage, and the two share field work. He also cleans up prairie hay. They cash-rent some of the farm ground out to some larger farmers.
This year the farm-ranch received a little over 9 inches of rain, compared to a normal 16 to 17 inches. The first cutting of alfalfa was a little over one bale per acre, and a second cutting was just one bale per acre. Silage went from a normal 18 tons per acre to 7 tons per acre, and the pile is about one-third of normal.
The saving grace is that they had quite a lot of hay left from 2019. Klesalek hopes it will get them through the winter. He’ll supplement with some oats and barley hay and corn ethanol distillers grain.
Klesalek, 70, with an eye toward scaling back the operation as a retirement “hobby,” says that if he finds himself short on feed this winter, he’ll likely cut back on cows rather than buy feed.
“I always say, I’ve got plenty of hay; I’ve got too many cows. Almost every year you can say that. Any rancher will tell you that, almost,” he said.
Kesalek is concerned that the steer calf market is “awfully soft” right now, and was especially so prior to the election. He’s worried the meat packing plants could close down because of COVID-19.
As times get tougher, he appreciates his bankers and input suppliers that “have your back," and he makes a point of mentioning cattle advice from Dr. Blaine Hopfauf, of Interstate Veterinary Clinic in Mandan.
The Klesolek ranch started with off-farm income in 1903. Bill's grandfather, Joseph, and two brothers came from Prague, Czechoslovakia. They farmed and dug wells by hand. Joseph eventually was able to concentrate on farming only. His father, George, then farmed full-time.
Klesalek was born in 1949 and graduated from high school in 1967. In the Vietnam years he enlisted in the military but was deferred for a medical reason. After that, he traveled throughout the U.S. for about six years, working in various jobs in West Virginia, Phoenix, Denver and Portland, Ore. He returned in 1971, after the deaths of his parents. He bought out family members to own the farm.
Klesalek married and had two sons. Short on capital, he initially leased out the land and took a job in town. A neighbor lent him money to buy equipment to start Klesalek Excavating, which he gradually built into a business he’s still operating today. Initially, he accumulated cows and put them out on shares with cattlemen between Mandan and Montana. He had Gelbvieh-cross cows until shifting into Angus in about 2000.
There been significant rough patches.
“I survived by the skin of my teeth” in the 1980s, Klesalek recalled. He remembers one year in the early 1980s that he could pay no principal on loans — only interest, which was 16% to 18% per year.
“It took everything,” he said.
Money is important for financial survival, but his emotional survival came from daily enjoyment of the cattle and the work itself. Klesalek’s first marriage ended in the 1990s. In 2000, he married Connie Christianson, who had two children and had grown up on a dairy farm near Driscoll, N.D., about 40 miles to the east of Mandan.
Ag in the background
Klesalek said ranching isn’t for everybody. None of the couple’s children went into it, and that’s OK.
“I tell people, ‘It’s nights and weekends, if you want to do something in the ‘background’ with ag,’” he said.
The calf check can be significant, but it’s been vital to have at least one of the two working full-time in town to handle health care costs.
Connie worked as a dental assistant for about 30 years but ended that four years ago and now does nanny work, even as she is heavily involved with the cattle. Every day, Connie goes to town to pick up two young sons of a couple who are both medical doctors. The older, a 2-year-old boy, knows where the Bobcat is and the Kubota.
The Klesalek farmstead is nestled in extensive shelterbelts.
They plant about 1,000 trees every year, Bill said.
They’ve replaced every building, mostly built themselves. Two years ago Bill built a cold-storage machinery shed. In about 2005, he and two employees built, tinned and poured concrete floor for a heated shop. Just before that he built a heated calving barn that holds about 25 cows at a time. Outside, they’ve replaced every mile of fence. The feedlot is bunk line feeders on systems that can keep up to 450 calves.
“You don’t go out and get everything right away. Every year, you throw a little more (investment) in there every year,” he said. “It’s paid off. We try to feed so we don’t go into the corrals.”
The Klesaleks calve in February and March.
One big advantage is the advancements in rural water.
Nearby pastures are provided with 15 heavily insulated “thermal fountains” — 16 inches above the ground with 4 inches of insulation, buried 6½ feet into the ground and connected to the rural water at the bottom. The devices are made by a Hutterite colony near Calgary, Alberta. The devices come as either single- or double-cylinders, with 52 gallons per cylinder.
“As long as the cattle are drinking out of it, replacing it every 24 hours, that water won’t freeze overnight,” even in subzero temperatures, he said. He keeps a section of land without grazing it, so the cattle can be taken to pasture on May 1.
The Kesaleks have talked to some young couples. Perhaps someone will join them in a transition.
“We’ll probably get to a point where we lease everything out,” he said. “I’m thinking we may cut back the cows by 100 cows and sell the calf-crop down to about 35 replacement heifers, rather than keeping 75 to 85 back. At retirement time, I’d like to have about 200 cows around for my hobby,” he said, smiling. "That would be nice."