With a focus on cattle, feed supply is the key

MANDAN, N.D. -- It's a wintry January in rural Morton County, but LeRoy Helbling and Rosemary Helbling are busy keeping their herd snug at the Helbling Hereford Ranch, southwest of Mandan. LeRoy, 58, is the third generation in his family on this ...

MANDAN, N.D. - It's a wintry January in rural Morton County, but LeRoy Helbling and Rosemary Helbling are busy keeping their herd snug at the Helbling Hereford Ranch, southwest of Mandan.

LeRoy, 58, is the third generation in his family on this place. His great-grandfather, Valentine, a German from Russia immigrant, settled near St. Anthony. His grandfather, Peter, moved 3.5 miles to this location in 1914, where he first built a horse barn and then a house. LeRoy's father father, Jacob "Jack," farmed until he was 90, and now it's LeRoy and Rosemary's.

Rosemary, who lets LeRoy do the talking for interviews, is used to his jokes about romantic sentimentality. He describes the "romantic gifts" that she gets: "a pitchfork, a scoop shovel, wire-stretchers," LeRoy says, dead-pan. "You can boost your romance to the next level by buying one of those for your wife."

Cattle focused

The Helblings purchase all purebred Hereford bulls and run them with commercial Herefords cows. Their livelihood is primarily selling steer calves. They sell some bulls in private sales, often to repeat customers.


Most steer calves are fed to 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. They sometimes sell market-ready fat cattle in South Dakota markets at Yankton and Aberdeen. "It all depends on the year, what the feed situation is," LeRoy says.

The Helblings raise oats, corn and alfalfa that all are fed to the cattle. How much goes into the silage and hay depends on rainfall. Their seasons can range from 2 inches of rain to this past summer when had nearly 40 inches of rain.

"That ruined a lot of hay," LeRoy says. "It was very tough to get some of the feed grains put up - the oats, the hay. We had mud, mud, mud, for a long time."

Every year, the couple strives to accumulate about 1,000 tons of silage. This year, they have nearly 1,400 tons in the bunker, despite two hail storms on July 17 and Aug. 6. The hail damaged about 40% of the cropland and 50% of the pasture. LeRoy calculates that the corn that wasn't hailed on averaged a very good 12 tons per acre, while the hail-damaged crop was about 2 tons per acre.

They feel fortunate to have harvested everything in a year when not everyone did. "We waited for the ground to freeze, but the silage still came in very nice," he says. They chopped corn from early- to mid-October, when temperatures often were near zero in the mornings.

The corn came in at a desirable 55% moisture. "It packed good, fermented good," LeRoy says.

About a fourth of the land is in crops. "We've had a lot of drought years, so most of this crop gets rolled up in a bale," he says. "We want to keep our cow herd around, so everything gets rolled up into a bale" for feeding.

Oats and silage


LeRoy says he feels fortunate to have had a good supply of carryover oats from 2017 and 2018. "I'm supplementing them with oats, and giving them extra hay.

"Once you get closer to calving, you've got to have better hay for them," he acknowledges. "New hay-there's a lot out there that's of very poor quality. It's been rained on a lot." He had to rake the hay to try to prevent molding and rotting. That process knocks off leaves where the protein nutrition exists.

The corn silage is "really what's pulling us through," because it helps save on the hay, LeRoy says. If it seems the farm will run low on feed this year, they'll sell calves earlier, perhaps in June. If the granaries and silage piles hold out, it could be as late as August or even September.

Some years, they have to feed late into the spring until pastures get a good start. "You just take it a week at a time, a month at a time, to see what Mother Nature does," he says.

Looking ahead to 2020, LeRoy says he has a good amount of newly seeded alfalfa. "I'm hoping to get that up in good condition," he says. He says he thinks there is ample moisture for spring seeding and he's optimistic there will be timely rains after that.

"If a person is pessimistic in farming, you don't have much get up and go, you don't have an emphasis to push," he explains. "It doesn't grow in the granary or the truck box. It's gotta be planted."

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